Sir Adrian Cadbury

Sir Adrian Cadbury was Deputy Chairman and Managing Director of Cadbury Schweppes from 1969 until 1974. He became Chairman in 1974, a post he held until 1989. Among other roles, he was a Director of the Bank of England from 1970-1994 and of IBM from 1974-1994. He served as Chancellor of the University of Aston, UK between 1979 and 2004. His work on corporate governance (known as the ‘Cadbury Code’) became the model for reform in Europe, Commonwealth Countries and elsewhere. He has also written influential work on the topic of corporate social responsibility.

Sir Adrian Cadbury endorses GULL and affirms the value of the process of action learning.

In a letter to Richard Teare written on 5 August, 2008, Sir Adrian wrote:

Dear Richard, I am writing to wish you success with the development of the Global University for Lifelong Learning (GULL).

I am pleased to note that GULL is dedicated to providing learning opportunities for all – especially disadvantaged groups and the poorest communities. I am familiar with the pioneering work of Reg Revans* and I endorse GULL’s practical approach to personal and professional development using action learning to help individuals, communities and organizations to sustain learning and apply the outcomes.

I believe that action learning is one of the most effective ways of responding to the many challenges faced by developing Nations. In providing lifelong learning opportunities for all it should be possible to secure a more inclusive and equitable role for those who have not benefited from traditional forms of education.

I am glad to hear of the progress made since GULL’s launch in Papua New Guinea during October 2007 and to learn that GULL has secured recognition by the Government of Papua New Guinea with endorsements from other Governments, Leaders and Institutions. This provides a good basis for recognising and certifying the learning that occurs at work and in the community.

Yours sincerely,

*In 1982, Sir Adrian Cadbury wrote a review for the Financial Times of the book by Reg Revans entitled ‘The Origins and Growth of Action Learning’. His review is included below.

“I never taught anything to anybody. I might occasionally have enabled them to learn.” (p. 319).

These essays on the background to action learning were published by a group who had found from experience that Revans’ approach to tackling complex problems works. Action learning has its roots in Revans’ early investigations into coal mines and hospitals. Why for example are some hospitals better to work in and to be ill in than others?

The first barrier to exploring such differences is to convince those concerned that they exist. Figures which appear to show that the patients in one hospital get better quicker than in another are likely to be attacked as not comparable. Arguing about figures is a stimulating intellectual exercise and a safe substitute for action.

Action learning hurdles this barrier, because the investigators collect their own data. In the hospital project, each of the hospitals taking part provided a team of three which investigated the state of one of the other hospitals. Action learning looks to practising managers to identify where problems lie and how they might be attacked. The investigators then have to carry with them those in a position to take the necessary action.

In the mine and hospital projects, it was insiders enquiring into institutions other than their own. In the programme which Revans organised in Belgium, the managers who took part were outsiders with no direct experience of the industry into which they were enquiring. Either way the action learning approach seems to me to have two essential attributes.

The first is that it is a questioning approach. What prevents an organisation from being as effective as it might be is usually hard to pin down. We can only obtain a clearer map of the organisation we aim to explore by asking questions. Asking questions means listening to the answers and listening is an underrated art in a monologue world. Another facet of listening is that potentially everyone in an organisation has ideas to contribute – as quality circles (the Japanese read their Revans) and successful schemes of participation testify.

The second aspect of action learning is that it depends on the way the actors on the action learning stage relate to each other. Whoever is undertaking the enquiry learns from those who own the problem and they from him. In the Belgian programme the enquirers met together regularly ‘as comrades in adversity’ (to use Revans’ phrase) and their interaction was an important element in the learning process. It is the network of relationships which creates the opportunity to learn.

Revans points out that systems and institutions can only be changed through people who are themselves prepared to change and to learn more about themselves in the process. These conditions are met when we are faced with real problems, to which a real risk of failure is attached.

Hence the case-study is no substitute for action learning, nor is job rotation. Action learning would put a newcomer into a job to questions its purpose, not accept it as it is. Neither is consultancy action learning, because it is the outside expert coming in from above. Action learning takes place among equals who have to find their way forward by drawing on their own resources.

Revans’ research shows that, where channels of communication are clear and where there is every encouragement to use them, organisations are effective. “The mechanism is a simple one, if the consultant appreciates the suggestions of the ward sisters and will even seek their opinion, the ward sister will be anxious to have ready for him the maximum information about patients”. So sisters consult their nurses, who in turn talk to their patients. From this exchange staff and patients learn and the latter recover faster, but the pattern is set from the top. There is a stark lesson here from the success or failure of schemes of participation in industry.

The paradox is that communications, for want of a better word, are both the problem and the solution. We need to find a sense of order and of purpose in our work. “It is not the pursuit of happiness that is the inalienable right of Mankind, but of intelligibility”. The pursuit of intelligibility is a theme that runs through these essays and intelligibility is a good test to apply to the aims, structures and tasks of the organisations in which we work.

It is difficult to give the flavour of the book in a brief review, but let Revans speak for himself:-

  • “What after all, is education other than learning how to ask questions?”
  • “There can be no action without learning and no learning without action”.
  • “so much idle academic rolling stock and so many miles of scholastic sidings green with yesterday’s weeds”.
  • “The vitality of participation is its local relevance”.
  • “Like the film of a chimney demolition run backwards”.

I read the book straight through which is a stern test, since it is made up of 52 separate essays. Inevitably there is some repetition, because Revans’ writings are based on a common core of experience, but each essay illuminates a different aspect of his theme. The English is admirably clear and the Biblical quotations apt. Revans’ Biblical scholarship and his success in international sport have contributed to the formation of his thinking on action learning. The right relationship between coach and athlete is after all a good example of action learning in practice.

“Action learning” forces us to question some of our more comforting assumptions about running organisations and this is unsettling. It is an important book and one from which all of us can learn, because it makes us think. There is a health warning inside; “The lesson seems to be that one ought not to start action learning if one is not going to like it”

I must finish with my favourite quotation:-

“When I asked the manager of the experimental coalface what hypothesis he was working on, he said that all the gear in the pit worked on compressed air”.

Adrian Cadbury

28 June 1982.


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