Reginald William Revans was born in Portsmouth in 1907 and was educated at University College London, and Cambridge. Whilst at Cambridge he studied under Ernest Rutherford and JJ Thompson, 'the fathers of nuclear physics'. Working in the Cavendish Laboratories he took part in weekly seminars where researchers came together to describe their work and the problems they were facing. This act of 'sharing their ignorance' enabled the research to move forward beyond the textbooks, into areas where there were no 'experts' and no prefabricated answers.
After Cambridge, Revans moved to become a Deputy Chief Officer of Education for Essex County Council (1935-45) and then Director of Education in the recently nationalised coal industry (1945-50). This new organisation was required to increase production to help Britain recover from the effects of war. Faced with this challenge, Revans introduced the process that had been so effective in Cambridge - he encouraged pit managers to meet together in small groups, to share their experiences and ask each other questions about what they saw and heard. The approach was successful, pit managers wrote their own handbook on how to run a coalmine, and productivity increased by over 30 per cent.
From the National Coal Board, Revans moved into academia, becoming the first Professor of Industrial Administration at Manchester University (1955-65). During his time at Manchester he began his long association with the National Health Service, working on a range of projects aimed at using the skills and experience of those involved in issues to resolve those issues.
After resigning from Manchester University, Revans moved to Belgium where he headed the Inter-University project, which had been set up to improve the ranking of Belgium in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development league. Working with five universities and 23 of the country's largest businesses, Revans' collaborative approaches succeeded in raising Belgium's industrial productivity growth rate above that of the USA, Germany and Japan. Revans was subsequently awarded with the nation's top honour by the King of Belgium. From the 1980s, Revans worked with public and private sector organisations, in the UK and internationally, advocating the process of action learning as a way of enabling and empowering people to learn with and from each other.
In 1995 he supported the establishment of the Revans Centre for Action Learning and Research at Salford University and donated his archive of action learning and related documents. He lived with his daughter in Shropshire, and maintained a keen interest in the work of the Centre and in the spread of action learning worldwide, until his death in January 2003.
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