Clearing out a pile of old papers this morning, I found a lovely obituary for Professor Reg Revans, the father of Action Learning, written by Simon Caulkin. Reg died 10 years ago, this month, in January 2003. I was privileged to meet him several times, when I was Visiting Fellow at the eponymous Revans Institute for Action Learning and Research. Simon’s opening sentence remains as true today as it was then. “Original British business thinkers are thin on the ground, and they often find their insights drowned out by more easily marketable management fads.”
It is no doubt in the nature of the times that some serious questions are resurfacing above the thick flotsam of the airport lounge business paperbacks and ‘just add water’ management fads. I’m spending a lot of time with my clients pondering questions like “How do we know that our work is having the impact we intend?” “How do we close the knowing-doing gap?” “Where are the next innovative ideas to the really difficult issues coming from?”
Reg’s ‘deceptively simple’ approach to management education dealt with practical actions for ‘Big Questions’. His practice of ‘Action Learning’comprises small groups of ‘comrades in adversity’ (people who share a real stake in resolving their problems) meeting regularly to learn from each other’s successes and failures, rather than simply from off-the-job expert instruction. He proposed Revans’ Law – that for an organisation to survive, its rate of learning must be at least equal to the rate of change in its external environment. But – as we know – learning is hard. We have myriad examples of this, from the personal – learning to eat less/exercise more for the sake of our health, through to the political – delivering a national-critical project on time and to budget.
Through his research in the newly nationalised coal board (working with E.F. Schumacher), in the NHS in the 1950s and 60s and in Europe, he was convinced that people learned faster and more enduringly from a deep reflection and response to their own problems, “sharing their ignorance (his quaint phrase), without fear of ridicule or reprisal” and experimenting with solutions that worked from the ground up. He noticed that people resolved problems faster, services were safer, patients had better outcomes, in those places where managers and staff really shared their problems, worked on them together and listened to each others’ different perspectives.
But, as well as being deceptively simple, action learning is a profoundly ethical approach to learning. People come together to inquire with deep and critical rigour into the underlying conditions that lead to the serious problems we face – and do something practical and purposeful to solve them. Reg was scathing about the then new business schools, churning out MBAs from academics who had never themselves even run a business. (His rather scathing joke was that MBA stood for ‘Moral Bankruptcy Assured’…!) And in his latter years, he was equally scathing about the swarms of management consultants who took up action learning, peddling it as if it’s another ‘silver bullet’ solution, all about personal development in hermetically-sealed little groups.
Happily, I see the the green shoots of change peeking through again. As Simon said in 2003 (with his usual prescience) “Conventional business education, and indeed UK management as a whole, is coming under increasingly sceptical scrutiny: [Revans’] grounded idea of management as something pragmatic, concrete and rooted in experience – the very opposite of the prevailing wheeling-dealing, short termist model – has never been nearer vindication”
Academics too are drawing attention to the deep divide between what goes on by way of academic research at Universities and the gritty reality of every day practice in organisation life. In a recent exchange with lovely Professor Peter Morris, from the Bartlett School at University College of London, he said:
“Project management is a ‘doing’ discipline. Yet universities approach to it is to emphasise theory. Academics too rarely get involved with the practice of managing projects. As a result they are in danger of being seen rather like the priesthood: a conscience; useful, to an extent, for reflection but not for the real business of living (doing)…. …Academics, understandably but to the profession’s loss, disaggregate the discipline and tend to seek expertise in one or more of its elements (like risk management, knowledge management, etc.) or else ‘problematise’ aspects of it and critique what knowledge or practice has been built up…. …. Meanwhile, practitioners hone their own view of the discipline, based, if they’re lucky, maybe on a MSc, possibly on some training course, mostly on what they pick-up over the years from reading, listening, and reflecting on their work experience. Learning and improving is quite ad hoc.”
Of course, Reg wasn’t against theory per se. Rather, he was most concerned that people developed the skills for themselves to seek out good theory or information to really assist their learning: he called this Programme Knowledge. This relationship between theory and inquiry is captured in his equation for learning.
L (Learning) = P (Programme Knowledge) + (Q) Questioning Insight.
He was clear that increasing our capacity for questioning insight, or critical reflexivity, is best done through the support and challenge of colleagues experiencing the same pressures and problems – and with the same interests in acting on them.
Learning IS hard. It does not take place between the ears in classrooms (as we so often assume in the Western world). Sometimes it means unlearning bad habits and letting go of deep assumptions about what has served us well in past. It is a doing, practical, reflexive, iterative, visceral process, tested and honed in application in real, live, serious situations and with real practical support from colleagues who are similarly committed to change.
Seventy years after Reg started writing and ten years after his death, creating these conditions for learning and change in the workplace, or in the communities, where real, sustainable, grounded innovation and improvement needs to happen, remains the challenge for our age.