Actions speak louder than words: action learning

Brian Chandler believes that when it comes to learning, actions speak louder than words.

Legend has the father of action learning, Reg Revans, sitting in the HQ of the newly nationalised coal industry. In the brave new world that was 1946, people were enthusiastic about modernising what had previously been a collection of individually owned mines with pretty variable standards of this and that. There was talk of improving those standards, talk of training, talk of a University of Coal. Revans decided to see if there were good things happening already – out in the field.

What he discovered was that highly productive mines tended to occur in clusters and that their productivity wasn’t a function of geology (i.e. the mines all tapping the same rich veins of coal). What he unearthed, so to speak, was that in the productive clusters the undermanagers (yes – that’s what they call the chaps who manage what’s under) had formed the habit of getting together for a pint at the local on a Friday night to talk over the week’s problems.

And this getting together to chew the cud is what later became known as an action learning set: a group of people running similar organisations, meeting regularly to listen to each other’s problems and to offer advice. Action learning is as simple as that. Later some argued for the presence of a facilitator, but my own view is that the local’s atmosphere and ale are facilitation enough. There is a terrible temptation, for all parties, to turn the facilitator into the authority figure who guides the discussion and has the answers.

Excited by the power and simplicity of his finding, so the story goes, Reg sought an audience with the cabinet minister in charge of the coal industry. Going into the great man’s office he recognised the vice chancellor of one of the great universities coming out. Bubbling with excitement he told Reg that a group of universities he represented had just been given £100m to set up a University of Coal. In vain Reg tried to explain to the great man that he could save him £100m and get better, quicker results. The idea of action learning was altogether too simple to be believed.

Whether in a huff or not, Revans moved to Belgium where he headed the Inter-University project, which had been set up to improve the ranking of Belgium in the OECD. Working with five universities and 23 of the country’s largest businesses, Revans’ collaborative approaches succeeded in raising the growth rate of Belgium’s industrial productivity above that of the USA, Germany, Japan and, of course, Britain.

Just give me the space to get on with it!

If you are inclined to say ‘typical!’, mentally castigating the Minister and his ilk – think about the following: If you gather together a bunch of senior managers and ask them what they advise for the development of their juniors, the talk will turn to training, coaching and MBAs. Then give them the privacy of working in pairs, with a flipchart, and ask them ‘when in your life, and under what conditions did you grow the most?’, a common story will emerge: ‘I was given a project that was important to the company, dropped in the deep end and left to get on with it.’ This support tends to come from a senior figure in the background who gives his attention and encouragement but doesn’t interfere.

So what’s going on here? Why do we experience one thing ourselves and advocate something different? Ask a group of people for advice to a recent graduate on picking an employer – the advice will be based on logical analysis, it will sound right. Ask how those same people how they actually got their first job? ‘My mate went there’; ‘My dad used to work there’; ‘I met someone in the pub’. It doesn’t sound quite good enough does it?

So we have a tendency to prefer things that sound right, that have an easy logic, that have an immediate appeal. Things that are intangible or that require us to slow down and think a bit – they come a poor second.  Does this matter? You bet it does.

At the highest level, we have the daily spectacle of political leaders on the world stage having to deliver ‘soundbites’ that have immediate appeal. If they dared to espouse something a bit more thoughtful, the next day’s headlines would tear them apart. And these guys are running nations.

At an individual level, our ability to delegate rests on our willingness to let people get on with it in their own way. This could be a way that may not sound right to us, without an easy logic or an immediate appeal. Directors of a company I advise were locked in criticising each other until I pointed out that there was nothing wrong with the results each was producing, merely the manner in which they did it – which didn’t conform to the way that the others would have done it.

We don’t just learn by doing – we learn by reflecting

Delegation, letting people find their own way, is one of the key factors in productivity and innovation. Google allow their employees one day in five to do what they want – so long as they record the results. 50% of their new stuff comes from this day; not just ideas – products. Alistair Mant is fond of claiming that the East India Company had the biggest and most successful management development programme ever. They hired the bright sons of the British middle class and sent them off to India to rule over pieces of it the size of Wales. The only stipulation was that each ‘deputy commissioner’ had to send a monthly report back to London. Any advice that might have been offered would have been laughably irrelevant by the time ships and horses had delivered the mail. This organisation of DCs stayed in power for 100 years and – by the standards of the day – the commissioners were resoundingly successful at the job they’d been hired to do.

The East India Company’s programme may have missed the getting-together aspect of Action Learning but it had the most difficult part of it – letting go and letting people learn from doing important things. The monthly report served as a fair replacement for the discussion of problems. We don’t learn by just doing; we learn by reflecting on what we have done. However busy an executive you are, I always advocate keeping a daily journal, or giving yourself time for some other form of reflection.

We are now discovering that children below the age of five – long thought to be incapable of learning in an ‘adult’ way – have learning abilities that often surpass adults. Babies and young children are exquisitely designed by evolution to change and create, to learn and explore. Yet within a few years, with notable exceptions, they will be subjected to the formal input of the classroom. Why? Because formal sounds right, informal is difficult to defend. It’s good to see that the UK’s great love affair with university degrees is beginning to be tested. More young people are bypassing the system, failing as it is to guarantee them jobs. Whoever believed that it could or should?. And I wish I had a tenner for every high-ranking executive of the construction industry who has shamefacedly explained to me that he (construction is a male world) didn’t go to university. They wanted to get out of the education system and ‘do something’. (For followers of Myers Briggs we are talking sensors – half the population.) The shame rests with a society that allows itself to be ruled by what sounds right.

So here we are, back to Action Learning. The next time your children or your staff seem to you to be in need of education, or you are asked to design a development programme for young execs – find them something important to do and let them get on with it, preferably in the company of others, and under the eye of someone high-ranking who knows how to encourage without interference. And ‘important’ means something that you think only you know how to do, something you obviously need to tell them how to do, something that you can’t afford to have fail. Easy isn’t it? Far too simple really.

“Unless your ideas are ridiculed by experts, they are worth nothing.” Reg Revans