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Action Learning


It is difficult to indicate the starting point of ideas where there is a series of thoughts and action is taking place continuously. However, everything has a point in time or space at which something starts, something comes into existence, or something is first introduced. From the beginning there was force that causes things to downfall, but whenever we talk about gravity, we remember Scientist Isaac Newton as an inventor. In a same way, Physicist Rеg Rеvans is a name that mentioned in relation to Action Learning. This does mean that there was not the concept of Action Learning before Revans introduced it. For instance, let us look at the Chinese remarkable proverb that reminds us to teach someone how to perform a job instead to fulfill his onetime needs, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; show him how to catch fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” Many have quoted this proverb to elaborate Action Learning. There is also another Estonian proverb that clearly describes Action Learning, “the work will teach you how to do it” (Kaiser, No date indicated on the document). If these proverbs explain what Action Learning is, then there were societies who have been practicing Action Learning without knowing it.


Physicist Rеvans coined the term Action Learning in a methodical and organized manner that is why he has been remembered as the ‘father’ of Action Learning (Brook, No date indicated on the document). According to Bond (2004) Revans developed the idea of Action Learning while he was Director of Staff Training and Development at the National Coal Board during the 1940s. Since then, Action Learning has been using as a powerful tool to solve organizational problems and for learning and development of people. Nowadays Action Learning has become a widely recognized method in many sectors including business, education and healthcare across the entire globe.


Revans didn’t propose a clear definition for Action Learning rather he described what “Action Learning is not” (Pedler, 1997 as cited in Brook, 1997). Little is known why Revans left his proponents without a clear definition. Since our current theory and understandings concerning the human race and the whole of human experience is subject to reconsideration and stand-in (Sankara, Dick & Passfield, 2001), as an originator, he might be overlooked it deliberately bearing in mind its dynamite power. However, Revans attempted to describe Action Learning indirectly. Action Learning is not “ job rotation, project work,  case studies, business games and other simulations,  group dynamics and other task-free exercises, business consultancy and other expert missions, operational research, industrial engineering, work study and related subjects, simple commonsense” (Pedler, No date indicated on the document). A lack of clear definition causes to become unable to find any meaning out of it and loses its foundational intention (Cunningham, 1996). As such, a number of Action Learning advocators have attempted to define what Action Learning is.


As Marquardt (2009) puts it Action Learning is a dynamic process that involves a small group of people solving real organizational problems, while focusing on how their learning can benefit individuals, groups, and the larger organization. McGill and Beaty (2001) describe Action Learning as a process of learning and reflection that happens with the support of a group or ‘set’ of colleagues working with real problems with the intention of getting things done. Both definitions agree that Action Learning is a process that requires a series of actions directed toward a specific objective where a group of people are involved. They also agree in the existence of real problem and the aim is solving that problem and learning takes place in quest of the solution for the problem.


The Purpose of Action Learning


The aim of Action Learning is twofold; it is ‘problem solving’ and ‘learning’ process. In other words, Action Learning serves not only for learning and development of people but also it deals about solving of problems within the workplace. This means that students are engaged in a full of demanding activity dealing with unidentified problems and uncertainties in their own organization (Bos and Gerdzen, No date indicated on the document). In this case, Action Learning involves working on real problems, emphasizing on learning and implementing actual solutions (Scott, 2011). Revans explains the learning process as the accumulation of “P” and “Q” i.e. Learning = P + Q. In Revans words “P” stands for the things of conventional education, or programmed knowledge which is inadequate to deal with problems and personal change (McGill and Beaty, 2001). Having realized the significance of Reflection many practitioners of Action Learning devised an extended formula based on the classical learning equation of Revans i.e. Learning = P + Q + R.


Where    P = Programmed Knowledge

            Q = Insightful Questioning

            R = Reflection


Peters and Smith (No date indicated on the document) pointed out three approaches to learning; namely, knowledge acquisition, applied learning and action learning. They further stated the key difference between Action Learning and the rest of the two approaches as follows:


The model of knowledge acquisition simply says - here is our curriculum, which dictates what knowledge, is appropriate to acquire, ingest it, and we can test to see if you have retained it. Applied learning says - here is some knowledge, ingest it, now see if you can apply the knowledge to fit a set of real or simulated circumstances; analyze a case study, say, or discuss in your own work context…Action learning… starts with a question of what we would like to know, rather than a body of knowledge per se, and then draws down or elicits from the body of knowledge what might be seen as useful to bear on the question. The foundation of the question is normally a real problem which really needs to be addressed, rather than a hypothetical one, and normally one which the learner him/herself cares about...


Action Learning may use to solve a problem that is why we call it problem-solving process (Authenticity Consulting, 2012). It assists organizations to solve existing critical problems by developing creative, flexible and effective approaches (Marquardt, 2009). The rapid changing world is going on in the direction of knowledge society; learning has a paramount importance in building knowledge (Vaughan, 2008). Organizations have been noticed the need to produce greater value through integration of innovation, quality and efficiency. The required new value cannot be attained by doing more of the same and familiar routine activities; instead, old working models and patterns of thinking both at managerial and operational level must be replaced with fresh, novel ones. In doing so, organizational leaders need to encourage “new ways of thinking and acting amongst individuals, groups, and communities” (Bontis, Crossan, & Hulland, 2002; Nonaka, 1994 as cited in Scott, 2011). While our organizational challenges call for learning and creativity, there is no consensus around what organizational learning is or how to best facilitate it. Action learning programs help practiced senior managers to provide effective numerous benefits to their organizations since the programs are ‘work-related’ and requires ‘accountability’ (Howell, 1994).


Action Learning may use as a leadership development program to develop leaders (Authenticity Consulting, 2012). If not all several managers are engaged in eventful activities within their organization, they try to justify for not being reflective due to the nature of their work; Action Learning avoids such an excuse for “Reflection in action” is the central expression  for managers a rule to live (Bos and Gerdzen, No date indicated on document). In doing so, the process encourages managers to ensure their continuous development by taking time to generate fresh ideas, act, try ideas, take time to consider about the results and again generate fresh ideas to trial. This nonstop cycle enables them to rely on their own finding rather than on expert’s suggestion (ibid). Action Learning plays a key role to enhance effective management since it requires work-related and evidence-based management theories that have to be reflected on practice (Howell, 1994). Learning that acquired from experience is profound and fruit bearing, it has also a paramount importance to realize actual ability and unleash potential ability (Dick, No date indicated on document).  

Action Learning may use as a team-building program to build up a strong team (Authenticity Consulting, 2012). Action Learning set fosters effective collaboration with an organization, because it prevents the division “we” and “I” and it calls to stress on organizational development more than personal development (Brook, No date indicated on document). In Action Learning individual development is enhanced as a result of group activity which is engaged in organizational problems (ibid). Action Learning may also use to other programs like coaching development, networking and for training activities (Authenticity Consulting, 2012).


Types of Action Learning


Action Learning practitioners attempted to classify Action Learning based on the participants whether they are from same organization or not; and if the number of existing problems are many or single problem. Others also tried if the group is formed and supported by the organization which is different from a group that is formed by peers without the support of the organization. In this regard, they tend to divide the types of Action Learning by saying “organization initiated set” and “independent set” (ibid). Still others tried to set a decisive factor based on availability of facilitator i.e. whether the group is facilitated by an advisor or self-facilitated (ibid). Cother (2014) categorizes Action Learning as follows: “Multiple-problem” versus “Single-problem”; “Action-oriented” versus “Learning-oriented” versus “Balanced”; “For qualification” versus “Not for qualification”; and “Intra-organization” versus “Inter-organization”. In this regard, Action Learning can be classified in various ways. It seems very helpful to know the common characteristics that constitute Action Learning rather to give an argument.


Requirements for Action Learning


Marquardt emphasizes on six elements that make the Action Learning program powerful and helpful, namely; existence of real problem, carefully established action learning group, process based on insightful questioning and reflective listening, decision to take action, commitment to continuous learning and a group facilitator.  These components may serve as a principle to carry out Action Learning, and they are known as principles of Action Learning based on Revans writings (Pedler, Burgoyne and Brook, 2005). According to Pedler et al., explanation the points discerned as principles are similar to that of Marquardt’s components of Action Learning. Whether the elements are perceived as principles or components, in order to carry out Action Learning there must be a problem, group of people who are willing to be engaged in solving the problem through insightful questioning by the help of facilitator rather than based on experts prior knowledge which directly ends by taking action. At Horn the basic requirements for Action Learning are listed below:

  • Coach: who is competent to facilitate Action Learning Program

  • Set:  a group of people minimum 2 and maximum 12 who are ready to support and challenge each other to undertake Action Learning Program.

  • Identified Problem: At the outset a real problem must be clearly addressed

  • Contract: agreement among Horn, the organization and employees/students to participate in the program

  • Problem Diagnosis and Analysis: Asking the right questions is the core principle within the philosophy of action learning that helps to understand the problem

  • Practical Action: The action taken may or may not solve the problem successfully but the real learning at this stage that paves the way for further reflection 

  • Personal Reflection: a personal response from multiple perspectives to what the students have studied and learned during the Action Learning Program

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