The Psychology of Quality and More

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Action Learning

Action Learning was first defined by Reg Revans in the 1950s as a way of on-the-job learning, which he found was more effective than classroom learning.

Action learning puts forward a simple proposition - that we learn best about work, at work and through work, within a structure which encourages learning. So if we want really to learn how to improve the assembly of a monitor, we really have to get the soldering iron out, on a real line. If we want to learn how to create and implement a marketing plan, we have really to create one. In so doing, our knowledge gaps become apparent, so we learn how to access and draw from the body of knowledge on a particular subject (whatever it is).

The reason we really have to do it is that theory alone will not tell us the real difficulties - that the person three places before us on the line is setting a component in such a way that the solder will not go in properly, or that the finance director resists the idea of marketing planning, and blocks initiatives at the board. Improvement of the line therefore becomes the technical knowledge of soldering in the right place, plus the dynamic skill of helping the person three steps up to do it differently. Marketing planning becomes the technical knowledge of information assimilation, port-folio analysis and industry demographics plus the dynamic skills of convincing the finance director. 

This is done in a framework of action (try it and feel how it feels) plus reflection (why is it working? why is it not? who can help? who can hinder?), plus concept construction (if these variables are in place in this way we can reasonably assume it will work the same way next time; if one of them changes, how will it affect the whole?), plus planning for the future (next time we should make sure we do this, this and this). Normally action learning groups are helped or facilitated by someone who is guiding the process, and aiming to make the participants themselves able to identify issues and search, find and use information to bring to
bear on the issues.

In an action learning program:

  • Everyone works on a work-based project or set of tasks.
  • People learn together and learn to work together.
  • The emphasis is both on achieving work results and on learning.

The five main elements of an action learning program are:

  1. The set, which is a group of around five or six people who meet regularly, typically one day per month.
  2. The projects or tasks that each person is working on.
  3. The special action-learning processes that the group adopts when working. 
  4. A set adviser who helps the group as it works and learns.
  5. The duration of the program, typically as three to six months.

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