Action Learning

Case Studies

Many HR managers and Learning and development specialists are skeptical of the value that traditional classroom training can produce. And they have every right to be skeptical – quite a lot of research has been done on the subject and much of it suggests that traditional ILT is a poor contributor to the bottom line:

  • “…less than 20% of training transferred to the job.”
  • “Most of the investment in organizational training and development is wasted because most of the knowledge and skills gained in training (well over 80%) is not fully applied by employees on the job.”
  • “Only 10 to 20% of training transfers to the job.”

There are two very simple reasons for this: the limits of human memory (in other words ? forgetting) and a lack of context.


The reality is that on average, over a period of a couple of weeks, the human brain forgets about 80% of what has been learned.[1] See the data in the graph below ? pretty much self explanatory. The fact is that if you don’t use it, you will lose it. So training needs to be delivered as close as possible to the moment of need. Training schedules being what they are, this is often very difficult.

Figure 1 – Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve


Lack of Context

The second reason is a lack of context – no matter how realistic the classroom simulations or role-plays are made, the decisions and actions we make in the classroom have no impact on anything. There is nothing at risk, and all the complexity, commitments and interrelationships of real life have been removed, so our behavior will always be different from reality. So when the classroom environment and the work environment are very different, it is no wonder that lessons learned in the classroom fail to transfer out to the workplace.

Action Learning ? Is it the answer?

We have been hearing a lot of consultants and training vendors using the term “Action Learning” these days. They claim that their training programs use action learning and are therefore more effective than regular training. But when we ask them what they mean by action learning, most of them get it wrong. They talk about case studies, strategy games, simulations and role-plays. These are not action learning. They are the same kind of off-line learning that has been producing poor ROI for decades.

So what exactly is action learning, and can it help ensure that the money we invest in learning is not wasted?

What is Action Learning?

Professor Reginald Revans is the originator of action learning. He began experimenting with it as a learning method in the 30s and 40s in the UK. It has evolved somewhat since then, but the basic formula is this:

L = P + Q + R


  • L = Learning
  • P = Programmed Knowledge (learning from traditional methods)
  • Q = Questioning
  • R = Reflection

The Process

  1. In this method a group of people, with a deep commitment to learning, meet regularly (once or twice/month) to solve real business challenges.
  2. They present the challenges they are facing, and through a facilitated discussion ands questioning techniques, uncover everything they know and don’t know about the situation.
  3. Then they propose and evaluate potential options. In other words, they are learning the way forward through a process of trial and error. They may use knowledge they have been exposed to in training programs or bring ideas from anywhere. The key to successful problem solving is often diversity, and a diverse group will produce a diverse set of possible options. The group will select a viable solution and then plan and schedule its implementation.
  4. The solution is then taken to the workplace and tested in reality.
  5. The group meets again next time and reflects on the success or failure of the solution. It may be necessary to fine-tunes it until it produces the desired results.
  6. The group’s learning about the problem and solution is documented and institutionalized in the form of job instructions or tools.
  7. The learning about learning is also documented and the team gets better at problem solving the more time they spend together.



Can Action Learning solve the problem of forgetting?

Ebbinghaus himself proposed a workaround for the forgetting curve ? spaced repetition. Below is an example of the forgetting curve with spaced repetition superimposed. It shows that the more times we review something, the better it sticks in our memory.

So the action learning method is a very good answer to the problem of forgetting ? Each action learning meeting is spaced at intervals so that forgetting never happens.




What about the problem of a lack of context?

One of the reasons that traditional learning does not transfer back to the workplace is that the context of the classroom and the workplace are so different, or the techniques are too abstract and theoretical. In other words, all learning needs to be adapted to reality somehow, before it can be made useful.

Case Study

In one real case we conducted a series of action learning modules after a project management training program. Project management training is notorious for teaching heavy and cumbersome methodology that rarely gets used in reality.

In one of the early action learning meetings, one member raised an issue with the company’s risk management plan ? it was far too heavy and complicated for the current project he was working on. As a result nobody was using it, and risks were being overlooked in some cases, and the organization was responding too slowly in others.

The Action Learning team went through the corporate Risk Management plan step by step with the team member’s current project in mind.

  • They identified the “must do, nice to do, and not necessary” steps, based on their experience
  • They documented a scaled down RM plan suitable for such low risk projects and a mid level one suitable for medium risk projects
  • They also created a scale for evaluating projects as low, medium or high risk.
  • This project risk level evaluation and new three-tiered plan was rolled out to the organization globally.

So the action learning method is also a very good answer to the problem of context ? in fact it is all about bringing learning to the workplace.

Can Action Learning be combined with traditional Instruction to make training more valuable?

The short answer is “yes”, provided the training is designed to address real, current, organizational issues that people face every day and feel a real desire to solve. It makes a lot of sense to follow up a training program with a series of action learning modules to get the learners thinking about how to adapt and bring the learning to their workplace.

Some companies are using action learning as a leadership development methodology while others are combining it with classroom training to add value and ensure the investment produces better results. Some of these companies include: Boeing, Deutschebank, General Electric, IBM, Microsoft, Nissan, Nokia, Novartis, Samsung, among others.

[1] Brinkerhoff and Gill, 1994, p.22

[1] Broad and Newstrom, 1992

[1] Jay Cross, Informal Learning (Wiley and Sons), 2007

[1] Ebbinghaus; Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology,1885/1913



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