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Reginald (Reg) Revans, PhD

Reginald Revans, PhD

Hall of Fame Class of 2006 - European

Reginald (Reg) Revans, PhD, is regarded as the “father” of action learning for managers and as an early advocate of the learning organization and systems learning. A physicist by profession, his early work was in nuclear physics at the Cavendish Laboratories led by Ernest Rutherford. Revans engaged in weekly sessions among his colleagues to gain deeper insights into challenging problems. Drawing on this model, Revans developed action learning for manager development, an approach to learning from experience that emphasized action research and questioning insight, when he was appointed Director of Education for the National Coal Board after the end of the Second World War. The coal pits that adopted action learning reported a 30 percent increase in productivity. 

After a 10-year period as the first professor of industrial management at the University of Manchester from 1955-1965, Revans left academia to lead an inter-university project in Belgium designed to improve the under-performing Belgian economy. Working with five Belgian universities and 23 of the country’s large corporations using action learning, solutions were found to the country’s decline. Revans also worked with a consortium of hospitals in England who engaged nurses in studying the challenges of low productivity and inadequate patient care in about 10 hospitals. 

Revans’ famous formula explains action learning by the equation of L=P + Q, or, that learning (L) occurs through programmed knowledge (P) and insightful questioning (Q).

Revans developed an elaborate theory of action learning that centers around what might today be called participatory action research combined with a healthy dose of self-knowledge and self-development. Revans practiced self-directed learning in these programs before it came to be known as such. He insisted that people learn much more from one another, through questioning, than they ever could through other-directed learning. He caused extended controversy until the day that he died around the use of facilitators or learning coaches in action learning programs for anything other than getting the “set” discussions started. 

Revans traveled and taught extensively about action learning, showing how solutions and learning generated this way led to changes in performance, productivity and other concrete improvements. The International Management Centres Association (IMCA) the leading global professional body for career and continuing professional development through lifelong action learning working in partnership with individuals and enterprise in Europe, the Americas, the Orient, the Pacific and Africa, was set up by business school faculty who were inspired by Revans; Revans was invited to become its first president and was later honored with the title of president emeritus. 

Revans studied physics at University College, London, and earned his doctorate at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. An accomplished athlete, he represented his country in the 1928 Olympics and held the Cambridge long jump record for 30 years.

Revans died on January 8, 2003, at the age of 95, but his legacy lives on in countless projects, books and an Action Learning: Research and Practice journal.