Manchester Memoirs: Case Notes on The Manchester Method

July 5, 2007

mbs-web.jpgHow effective is project-based learning within business education? A tutor reviews a seven-week project for MBA project teams assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the approach

It is early evening, Friday June 6th 2007. I stagger into the courtyard after two days of Project 2 presentations from the class of 2008. The Class of 2008 is a recently introduced label for what used to be called ‘the first year MBAs ’. The new name reminds us that the class graduates in 2008. Similarly, the class of 2007 is the distinguishing label for ‘the second year MBAs’, now close to graduating. Next week, examiners’ meetings will settle the fate of members of the class of 2007, and confirm which members of the class of 2008 will or will progress towards graduation.

Project 2

Project 2 occupies a pivotal space in the MBA timetable. It’s where teams of MBAs take on projects on behalf of business clients. The projects have been selected as requiring the team to work from a starting brief towards something with more clearly specified and feasible objectives. Most team members have quite a few years experience in business roles. But Project 2 still presents some tough new challenges.

An end-of-semester barbeque is underway in the courtyard. I can’t smell the coffee, but I can smell the hamburgers. The event has been organized in support of a local charity by an indefatigable student from the class of 2008. All seats in the courtyard have been claimed, with the unoccupied ones being guarded for hunter- gatherers in the Barbie line. I try unsuccessfully to see if the sustainability team members were opting for non-veg hamburgers.

Could that be the team that had pulled no punches about their lawyer clients now supping enthusiastically with junior council? It was. I wondered if the barristers had liked my ice-breaking joke a few hours earlier to welcome them? The one about there being no space in front of the School for their chauffeur in the corporate roller? I decide they didn’t.

Flashback

A couple of months ago, the teams from the class of 2008 had bid for the Project 2 assignments they would like. Before that, there has been a lot of work by the project support staff, canvassing for projects. After the student bidding, there are some disappointed students and some would-be sponsors. There will be further bidding. It’s a neat process, with good learning challenges. One down-side is that faculty have trouble in advance predicting will be favorites. This year I tried to hard to ‘sell’ a project only for the offer to be totally spurned. Another great project (so thought the tutors) was likewise turned down. Teams have offered assorted explanations for their preferred choices, but there’s no obvious pattern revealed, and maybe undisclosed reasons.

The projects

A strong tradition has emerged that the specific details of projects remain confidential. The senior administrator of the project has a shredding machine in her office, and she ensures there are no documents that might lead any information to be revealed to anyone outside the restricted circulation list. Which is one of the reasons I won’t be saying much about the projects.

Team dynamics: Not an Apprentice in sight

Project 2 took place over roughly the time period of the BBC TV show The Apprentice. I am immune to the charms of Alan Sugar’s program. I am spending quite enough of my waking and working days with teams of people working on business tasks.

One more time: what is The Manchester Method?

At The Manchester Business School, our short-hand for the learning provided within projects is The Manchester Method. This defies conclusive definition for the same reason that social constructs such as leadership and creativity have defied definition. The concepts take on new meanings as they are tested in use. This explains why, over the years, The Manchester Method has been described in various ways. When students ask about definitions I offer the one most reflecting my understanding at that particulat time. Recently I have been saying that

The Manchester Method is a learning process of a kind which permits participants to engage directly with experience, and which facilitates links between the experience, and relevant theoretical concepts.

But I still show overhead visuals with an earlier definition which actually is a well-known description of organizational culture: The way we do things around here.

Learning Gains

The MBAs learn about leadership, co-dependence among team members, dealing with multiple ‘stakeholders’, tackling the ambiguities of business projects, and much more beside, A minority will go more deeply into the pedagogy, in personal logs and follow-up studies.

Each project is unique. But every project has been selected so that it permits learning rather general behavioural principles. One set of these were imported from the pioneering work of The Tavistock Institute. These suggest that any social group will be prone to defense mechanisms against uncertainties, and perceived threats and fears. The symptoms are easier to detect from the outside. They are broadly actions which can be interpreted as scapegoating, finding in a person the symbolic object on which to project blame.

This is where it gets interesting. A team may have someone who is not working very hard. In some cases the rest of the team acts to get rid of the free-rider. In another team, the team is unable to make contact with the sponsor, and is at risk of not completing the assignment. Sometimes the final report then puts too much emphasis on the weaknesses troubles of the sponsor. Yet another team finds an explanation of their difficulties as unprofessional behaviors of a tutor, or course director, or maybe collective incompetence of those connected with the project.

These are the dynamics which are swirling around. They reflect what happens when teams tackle tough problems. They have not been deliberately inserted into the project as a social experiment. And, the faculty does not deliberately act in what are described as unprofessional ways. As painful as the process is, the mini-crises do turn out to have scope for constructive learning.

A Painful Experience

I reflect on some project highlights and lowlights. Not for the first One team, frustrated by actions (or inactions) of its tutor decides they have been badly treated. Why not send the tutors a memo? How about sending a copy to the project coordinator? In which case, it may be better to send a copy to the overall course director as well. In which case, maybe a copy to the Head of the School seems an even better idea.

Could have been worse. One year, a particularly outraged team sent copies to The University’s Vice Chancellor. Perhaps we should give more specifical illustrations of wicked problem solving

What Didn’t we get a better Grade?

Today I had another familiar requests on behalf of a team. Why didn’t we do better? One student has arranged to meet with me to discuss this. How honest will I be? Will I find time to turn the discussion [later today, July 4th 2007] into a further little opportunity for personal development? Not just for the students, but for myself and maybe others involved in the project. Will I be able to recheck with the second reviewer before the meeting? Will I find my notes out of which we agreed the particular grades two months ago, for the seven presentations we sat in on ? Will the notes still be somewhere in the middle of the pile of documents in my office, ‘tidied’ into archeological layers in a ‘pending’ pile?

The tutors on the project are still trying to arrange time to get together for a debrief sometime during the following few months. Immediately after the project there was a general exodus to catch up after seven weeks more closely confined to barracks. Holidays, conferences, last-minute contingencies, and (honestly) out-of-town responsibilities mean we are still trying for a date that works for a full complement of the dozen or so support staff directly involved in the project.

Incremental innovations

Each year there are various suggestions to fix what went wrong. Some ideas make it into next year’s project planning. At first, tutors may have to introduce changes as experiments, aware that any change which impacts on assessment is not ‘authorized’ until accepted after scrutiny on various committees. Also, the experiments make documentation a little-less reliable.

Is it worth it?

Projects are particularly challenging as a mode of business education. We tend to keep faith in the benefits of this kind of experiential learning. A surprising proportion of colleagues hang in there, rather than seek alternative ways of justifying their careers.

That’s not to say we do not also experience some of the doubts and darker moments of the MBA teams. As one management scholar liked to say ‘every project appears to be a failure in the middle’.


Social Networking and The Manchester Method

May 29, 2007

manchester-method-as-a-community-of-learning.ppt

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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manchester-method.ppt

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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