Leadership and the criticality of action learning

March 9, 2009
Linus Tunstrom

Linus Tunstrom

A seminar at the Revans Academy for Action Learning and Research explores how action learning sits alongside critical management theory. These topics have also attracted the interest of leadership researchers

The Seminar [March 31st 2009] hosted from Manchester Business School is one of a series which according to organizer Dr Elaine Claire explores

How action learning sits alongside related approaches to learning and development and brings together practitioners and scholars in debate and critique, in order to enhance understanding and action in the field. This particular seminar seeks to [explore] differences between action learning and critical management theory … some would argue that by its emphasis on empowerment of the learner, upon the development of critical questioning insight and through a focus upon facilitating individual, organisational and societal change, ALL action learning is critical! This is the starting point for the seminar ..

Action learning and Melvin Bragg

This poses a rich set of issues to be explored. It seems the kind of thing that would make a good topic for the wonderful BBC programme In Our Time, moderated for many years by Melvin Bragg.

Bragg’s approach is to take a richly intellectual topic and invite structured discussion from a small panel of leading authorities. (Over to you, Lord Bragg).

A few thoughts to add to the discussion

The seminar includes a contribution from Russ Vince who has earned a reputation in helping codify the enormous field of experiential learning.

Russ has also the unusual (unique?) title of Professor of Leadership and Change (at the University of Bath). So there may well be insights into yet another set of relationships between leadership, experiential learning and change.

An example of this, and an action-oriented one, can be found in the work of theatrical director Linus Tunström of Upsalla’s Stadsteater.

Linus Tunström

Tunström explained his leadership style at a recent creativity conference at Upsalla University. His career route into his current role includes a period as a film director whose work has been shown at Cannes. He has developed a leadership style which was always going to be one in which the actors would be invited to find their own voices and interpretations around his own broad vision of the work. It is a leadership style which seems to me quite compatible with trust-building (‘empowerment’?), discovery learning, and creative leadership.

The critical management and action learning workshop

This workshop also reaches out to another powerful social science concept, that of critical theory, which has a long-standing research group at Manchester organized by Dr Damian O’Doherty and Dr Damian Hodgson, who suggest that a good summary of the field of study can be found in the Oxford Handbook of Critical Management Studies edited by Alvesson, Bridgman and Willmott.

Professor John Hassard, also at Manchester Business School, has been a senior figure in the field for some years.

No doubt the seminar will also bring some participants up to speed with this increasingly influential approach for understanding the fundamental nature of knowledge.


Aspects of leadership: An action-learning experiment

November 22, 2007

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An action learning experiment was carried out by group of senior officers following the principles of Reg Revans. Four teams were assembled, and examined four recent leadership cases

According to action learning pioneer, Reg Revans, the most powerful learning is profoundly embedded in sharing experiences, which can be achieved within action learning sets or groups.

In an earlier post, this was explained as follows:

The learning context must be a real working/project. Scheduled input of theory knowledge /lectures should be kept to a minimum and more time provided for workshops, meetings and questions. An independent adviser needs to be present to facilitate, help or guide when needed. An atmosphere is of openness to confronting sensitive internal issues and flexibility in terms of scheduling

In this application, the action learning sets were assembled from officers of the British armed services, all of whom were making the transition into non-military careers on a senior executive programme within a international Business School.

The Cases

Case one
O’ Neal (Merrill Lynch)
Issues:
O’Neill credited with firm’s growth and success in past
Recent financial down-turn also placed at his door
‘Tipping point’ action (strategic discussions with Wachovia)
Very lucrative ‘amicable’ parting

Case two
The simple sailor (Admiral West)
Issues:
West is newcomer to high-profile political role
‘Critical incident’ (He seems to reverse a decision unconvincingly)
Realpolitik versus duty?
Story simplifies and discards ‘inconvenient’ evidence of career success

Case three
Charles (Chuck) Prince (Citigroup)
Issues
Was Prince a formerly successful leader who ‘lost it’ (c.f. O’ Neal)?
His removal seems connected with embarrassing write-downs of third quarter (sub-prime losses)
Board emphasizes continuity of strategy, but with a new leader
Leader departs with honor and ceremonial gifts

Case four
Bob Nardelli (Home Depot;Chrysler)
Issues
Nardelli fired from Home Depot partly through leadership style
‘Difficult but not a ‘simple’ former American Footballer
Private equity firm (Cerberus) needs ‘tough-minded leader’ at Chrysler
Is Nardelli the right sort of leader for the job?

Leadership issues

The cases have some commonalities. Three of the four support the common perception that leaders are expected to make a significant difference to their organizations. (Case two did not disprove it, either).

All cases indicate the way in which a leader acts takes on symbolic significance to others. This is an important aspect in the new leadership model since the 1980s.

The symbolic story becomes transmitted through media and other story-makers and purveyors. Each story has its heroes, villains, crises, battles, and acts of individual valour or foolishness.

The cases also add credence to notions of leadership as being highly situational. However, they leave unanswered the question of whether the same leader willl be equally effective in different circumstances.

Leadership questions

The four action-learning sets shared their discussion findings. It would be consistent with action learning principles to treat the learning process as being mainly relevant to those within each group, drawing on their own experiences. However, it also seems consistent to report findings, providing further questions for subsequent study.

The discussions touched on situational leadership raising a point found in Machiavelli’s writings:Can you be a tough leader (and implement job cuts) and then lead the reshaped organization?
[Compare the situation with a military commander who has had to carry through a campaign that accepted major casualties in action.]

Is a ‘poor’ style usually accepted when the going is good?

Where should the buck stop in political affairs?
[Should we take a view of leadership as more distributed than hierarchical?]

Is moral courage a handicap in environments where short-termism is prominent?

The EMR concept

Discussions also resulted in an elegant three-word summary of which can be seen as the start of a simple but powerful framework for examining contemporary leadership cases. The habitual response of an academic is to give an idea a name, and mess about with it so that it looks more like a framework or model.

I will avoid the temptation (for the moment) of drawing double headed arrows, boxes, or Venn diagrams, reporting only the three elements suggested by one action learning set as capturing the main elements which permit an examination of contemporary leadership cases:

Expectations
Media
Results

Footnote

The post was prepared from materials provided in advance of the workshop, and completed following the presentations of the four action-learning teams


Reg Revans: Action Learning Pioneer

November 8, 2007

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William Reginald Revans (14 May 1907 – 8 January 2003) was arguably one of the most influential of British educationalists of the twentieth century. He pioneered Action Learning, which today is among a handful of educational innovations which has survived and developed as a theory of action, and a theory in action

In the course of a lengthy and illustrious life, a mythology built up around this remarkable man. However, in late 2007, definitive biographic materials remained hard to find. For example, in Wikipedia, there was no entry on Revans. You have to explore wikipedia for Action Learning, his professional legacy.

One excellent but brief biographic account provides a glimpse of a remarkable professional career. There are the early critical incidents: a childhood recollection of attending the memorial service of Florence Nightingale (perhaps the story became replicated through his later distinguished efforts within the National Health Service). A discussion with his father, a maritime surveyor who had become involved in the enquiry into the sinking of the Titanic, provided another critical incident. Revans was introduced to the notion that ‘we must learn to distinguish between cleverness and wisdom’, a principle he retained throughout his life.

Revans was trained as a physicist at London and Emmanuel College Cambridge, later working with Rutherford’s Nobel-winning team at The Cavendish laboratories (1932-1935). Rutherford’s approach and team meetings could be taken as exemplars for action-centred learning. At that time Revans had also gained distinction as a gifted athlete, competing to Olympic level.

The Rise of Action Learning

In the 1930s, Reg Revans began his career as a senior manager, initially as Director of Education at Essex County Council, where he also began a long association with the Health Service. These experiences along with emergency service in the London Blitz of 1940, confirmed his growing philosophy (and practice) of learning by doing.

There followed a decade as an academic at The University of Manchester (1955-1965). He had become the first Professor of Industrial Management and he continued to diffuse his innovative ideas of action learning. But it was after he left his University post, that his ideas were to gain international recognition.

The most impressive, and often repeated claim is that his work, through an extensive cluster of active learning projects in Belgium, directly improved that nation’s industrial productivity over the period 1971-1981.

One article summarised the workings of Action Learning as follows:

People learn most effectively not from books or lectures but from sharing real problems/projects. The [action] learning process may be expressed as:

Learning (L) = Programmed knowledge (P) + the ability to ask “insightful” Questions (Q)
Programmed knowledge (P) is conveyed through books, lectures, and other structured learning mechanisms. Insightful questions (Q) are those questions that are asked at the right time and are based on experiences or an attitude about ongoing work projects.
• The learning context must be a real working/project
• Scheduled input of theory knowledge /lectures should be kept to a minimum and more time for time for workshops, meetings and questions
• Commitment from top management and team members with No hidden agendas
• An independent adviser needs to be present from the life of the team to facilitate, help or guide when needed.
• An atmosphere of and openness to confronting sensitive internal issues.
• Flexibility in terms of scheduling

‘Moral Bankruptcy Assured’

Reg enjoyed creating learning aphorisms. One of his favorites summed up his view of the emerging Business School methods and the MBA degree, which he liked to describe as Moral Bankruptcy Assured.

It was an irony that his penetrating insights into the dominant educational model was directed from a member of a University whose Business School prided itself in its own version of learning by doing, the so-called Manchester Method, and whose academics included several international figures such as Stafford Beer, Enid Mumford, John Morris, and Teddy Chester, who were contributing to a non-traditional educational approach. Professor John Morris was but one who became an active participant in the advancement of Action Learning subsequently.

However, we have the nearby University of Salford to thank for keeping alive Action Learning within a vibrant North-West England group of action researchers. By another irony, leading figures have more recently rejoined the University of Manchester, with plans to develop further the theory-in-practice ideas of Reg Revans.


Is leadership training up the pole?

October 4, 2007



stairway to heaven

Originally uploaded by t.rickards

A recent visit to a leadership training camp prompted the question ‘what’s the point of all this pole climbing?’.

The very reasonable question was posed by a colleague who had not been part of the experience. Where to start?

Faraday was asked ‘what’s the point of electricity?’ Being a bright spark himself, he was able to reply ‘What’s the point of a baby?’

Experiential learning has to be experienced

It is perhaps a dilemma of leadership. No amount of conceptualizing seems to help answer such a question. The fundamental divide may be between those who learn from experience, and those whose reluctance to engage with experience prevents them from ever finding out for themselves.

Case for the prosecution

It is very difficult to demonstrate the direct link between experiential learning and subsequent real-life behaviors. Therefore, the cost-effectiveness of such programs are also difficult to demonstrate.

Individuals will have very different capabilities to cope with the physical and emotional challenges they are confronted with.

Organizations are increasingly aware of the corporate duty of care, and where the ultimate legal responsibilities and sanctions fall.

Case for the defense

It is very difficult to demonstrate the link between almost any form of business education and subsequent real-life behaviors. There are various technical reasons. These can be found (among other sources) in the Chapter in Dilemmas of Leadership as well as in texts on evaluative inquiry for learning in organizations.

The entire Business School curriculum is increasingly under pressure to accept its limitations, and change to cope with the challenges of the 21st century. The rankings of Business Schools are widely regarded as based on dubious mathematical manipulations and rely on indirect measures of assessing educational value (proportion of faculty with higher degrees; average salary gains among its graduates; ratings in scholarly publications …). Nor is there much agreement about the relative merits of various ranking systems.

Students generally rate experiential projects highly. The exit assessments for the cohort of the Business School described here were overwhelmingly in favour of the projects as a valued part of the course.

A better way?

Here’s a challenge. There must be better ways of assessing the impact of experiential learning as part of a business education.


The Murdochs ride out

August 2, 2007

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The Murdochs are on rampage. One force led by father Rupert overpowers the Dow Jones ranch. Meanwhile another raiding party headed by son James makes a lightening raid, and claims ownership of the Amstrad territories. Can anyone stop the Murdoch gang?

Got a bit carried away there. First the surprise news that BSkyB, led by James Murdoch, has acquired Amstrad. Then a less surprising report. The long-running News Corps seige of the Dow Jones organization conducted by Rupert Murdoch has come to an end. The prized asset, The Wall Street Journal, has fallen to the mighty News Corp.

Both are relatively small deals, but each is of a high profile nature.

Before we get too tricksy in linking the two stories, let’s recap on recent events. The Wall Street journal tells it as it sees it, as a delicate dance between suitor and target. Suiter and Target? That’s not very romantic, but the story is well worth a read.

Behind the scenes, however, the media mogul had orchestrated a deal over two years. He quietly gathered intelligence on Dow Jones’s operations and consulted Wall Street figures to plot his moves. An emissary for him talked with family members who had been Dow Jones dissidents a decade ago

The story then rotated around the reluctance of the powerful Bancroft family to sell its shares. The sticking point was not so much a fair price, as the loss of what was reported as the values of independent news reporting esposed by family members.

Meanwhile, at BSkyB

Meanwhile, News Corporations’ subsidiary, BSkyB, announces that it has reached a deal to buy Amstrad. Coincidence, but another victory for the Murdoch family and News Corp. Like father, like son, The offer is a no-nonsense one, valuing Amstrad high enough above the traded value of its shares to deter other would-be bids. This is salient, as prospects for the Amstrad have not been rated highly by analysts.

The agreed figure is some £150 million. But the deal comes with a lot of trappings. Amstrad is the company that Sir Alan Sugar created and led to its current position. That alone would have secured him a niche as one of the UK’s most successful entrepreneurs, but then he starred in his own TV series, The Apprentice.

BSkyB is high-profile in the UK, through the impressive success of its satellite broadcasting, and particularly through its impact on Premier League football. Its deal is generally regarded as a major factor in the rocketing finances, and players mega-contracts. Add to that is a whiff of (Mills & Boon) drama starring a less-favoured offspring of James Murdoch striving to prove himself to patriarchal father Rupert and to the world.

Students of takeover battles can find details further details in earlier posts.

Financial analysts concede that the bid is advantageous for Sir Alan. In strictly financial terms the value to News Corp is less clear.

Some blue sky thinking

Those of us at a distance from the key players have to reply on efforts of imagination, trying to make sense of the available information. This is a nice training exercise for would-be strategic leaders. Can you push yourself beyond first impressions? Can you make sense of otherwise curious aspects of the story as it is presented to you?

Here are two puzzling aspects. Why did Rupert Murdoch make an offer for Dow Jones that is widely beyond what anyone else would have been prepared to pay? Why did James Murdoch likewise make an offer which again is one that is high enough to baffle commentators?

It is likely that there is an explanation that lies beyond the basic short-term numbers involved. The targets possess some value to News Corp that go beyond financial valuation of assets. For Dow Jones and its Wall Street Journal we could investigate whether the figure could be taken as reflecting that mysterious intangible ‘potential value of the brand’. I can’t see that work so well in the case of Amstrad (Sorry, Sir Alan).

In the first case, the intangible may be seen as the WIT price meaning ‘whatever it takes’. Rupert Murdoch wants the Wall Street Journal. A majority of its shares are held by individuals for whom the company is not valued in terms of a stock-market figure. Some ‘offer they can’t refuse’ has to be made. And eventually pragmatism wins over deeply held emotions. The WIT pricing simplifies the deal-making, by removing the possibility of some third party white knight appearing on the battle field.

In the second case, the seller, Sir Alan Sugar is founder of Amstrad. He has never presented himself as bound to it through a deep emotional commitment. Sugar the entrepreneur and market trader has the pragmatism of the entrepreneur. Faced with a deal in a company whose best days seem to be behind it, he acts decisively.

So what was James Murdoch up to? The ‘killer fact’ for me is the reliance that BSkyB has for Amstrad to supply its satellite boxes. With Amstrad stock otherwise rather unattractive, might it be attractive as a nice little move for, say, Richard Branson to make a bid of Amstrad. At very least that would send the price of Amstrad up. Until recently, that would also have been a real concern also because of BSbyB’s dispute with Virgin Mobile.

Is that what happened?

No more than speculation on my part. But it does show some of the considerations those strategic chess players have to be aware of in these corporate battles. And at least it does not reply on disentangling the spin put on the story given to ‘in the know’ financial journalists.


Social Networking and The Manchester Method

May 29, 2007

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The Manchester Method is offered as a case example of an educational innovation which can be analysed within a complex social network

Which sounds very grand and scholarly. I had been offered a ten-minute slot to discuss The Manchester Method at a workshop for educational experts.

Ten minutes is a rather brief time for a public presentation. I consoled myself with the thought that this was five time longer than was granted to the candidates for the Labour Party deputy leader debacle last night.

I futher consoled myself with the thought that one of my points was an example of a realistic leadership challenge in which MBA students were trained to make a one-minute elevator pitch.

So, assisted with such psychological Dutch courage I stepped up to the plate, and attempted to summarize over thirty years of work known as The Manchester Method which has been carried out by a community of practice extending out from my academic homebase of The Manchester Business School, within The University of Manchester, England.

The gentle art of knitting

It is a well-known fact that academics are prohibited from publishing the same idea in more than one scholarly journal. It is less well-known that academics are skilled at the art of knitting a variety of patterns, thus conveying the appearance of producing new product after new product, with minimum change of procedures.

I was thus able to draw on the basic principles of The Manchester Method, outlined in an earlier post.

These were then knitted to meet the request of the workshop organizers to ‘do something about social networking’

Manchester Method as Social Networking


The Manchester Method as an educational innovation

May 22, 2007

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Thought leader Etienne Wenger has been exploring the importance of communities of practice for at least a decade. His visit to Manchester offered an opportunity for exploring The Manchester Method, a business school approach to developing teaching and learning, as an example of an educational innovation within a community of practice

There is a rhetoric that people are an organization’s most important resource. Yet we seldom understand this truism in terms of the communities through which individuals develop and share the capacity to create and use knowledge.

Even when people work for large organizations, they learn through their participation in networked clusters of people with whom they interact on a regular basis. These “communities of practice” are mostly informal and distinct from organizational units. This term has been growing in significance for over a decade, and is widely attributed to the energetic efforts around the world of Etienne Wenger.

At Manchester Business School, we have been developing an approach to developing business leaders under the rather cryptic title of The Manchester Method.

The presentation above was prepared for a workshop on communities of practice, at The University of Manchester, May 30th 2007.

The over-arching innovation involves the embedding in the Business School curriculum of experience-based learning methods within complex real-life projects. It shares an enquiry-based pedagogic approach which can be found in various related initiatives. For example, The University’s Medical School has pioneered the use of problem-based methods as a significant aspect within its curriculum.

What is The Manchester Method?

The very term suggests that The Manchester Method is a codified set of procedures that have emerged in a specific location and period of time within a process of Business Education. Definition is ‘simply’ a matter of sketching out the nature of the procedures and context. Such a definition is worth attempting, provided we recognise that it will be open to amendment, as precedures change through experience and practice.

Over the years, those of us considered to have been applying The Manchester Method have arrived at various definitions, which may be seen as partial, and open to re-interpretation. This fits nicely with a reputable approach to understanding the nature of knowledge, but does not meet approval of many practical professionals. For the latter, I tend to indicate various definitions to be found in reports of the Method, while warning that definitions are more valuable when taken within specified contexts.

Most attempts at a definition imply a learning process of a kind which permits participants to engage directly with experiences which facilitate informed links being made between the experience, and relevant theoretical concepts.

Antecedents

The antecedents to the Manchester Method were documented in something called The Manchester Experiment characterized as:

a highly practical, learning by doing approach to management education, undertaken in a democratic, non-departmental organisation which was only loosely coordinated from the top [which] symbolizes the continuous process of innovation which has typified the approach to course design at Manchester Business School

From experiment to method

Over time, the utopian ideal of a non-departmental, status-lite organization was to wither away. However, the course content of the MBA preserved some of the historical practices, particularly the emphasis on project-based learning.

Early in a course, projects are well-bounded. They are ‘realistic’ rather than slices of ‘real-life’. Later in the course, projects become more complex, with more ambiguities and connections with real-world issues, sponsors, and budgets. Working within such a context, faculty become willing and able to tackle challenges which had substantial contextual differences from their professional areas. I have little doubt that immersion in such a culture encourages a ‘can-do’ attitude to innovation and change.

It is important to stress that we are not advocating a complete rejection of traditional modes of business education. Rather, we see the merits of a symbiotic relationships between classroom and boardroom experiences. Conventional cases are as valid as the benefits of ‘living cases’ (as one advocate memorably described the projects).

Pioneering influences

The conceptual grounding of the method can be appreciated from its pioneering influences. Significant contributions came from Stafford Beer, through his work on modelling the viability of organizationational systems; from Reg Revans (action learning sets); John Morris (joint development activities); and Enid Mumford (Tavistock psychodynamics within socio-technical systems modelling).

Impact

Assessing the validity of an educational approach is a complicated business. Evidence tends to be contested. Our internal surveys of student satisfaction offer some indications that the approach has considerable appeal.

Advocates (myself included) could be found guilty of action research in which the action lacked research and the research lacked action. However, there has been a heartening increase in efforts to embed the work in theoretical frames, while retaining its action orientation.

Middle-range constructs of interest are emerging, such as the team factors associated with creative leadership.

One team factor particularly relevant to a workshop on communities of practice is that of Network Activation. The process was identified within a Manchester Method study by Susan Moger. It has already attracted attention of researchers far beyond Manchester in further work in The United States, Germany, Malta, Saudi Arabia, and Taiwan.


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