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.


Reg Revans: Action Learning Pioneer

November 8, 2007

reg-revans.jpg

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.


A Brief history of leadership

October 21, 2007

glass_spiral_staircase.jpgLeaders and leadership continue to capture the public imagination. But there have been few attempts to trace the history of leadership to its earliest manifestations. What can be learned from the hard-wired behaviors of insects, the territorialism of reptiles, the disciplinary schooling of horses, and the social capitalism of chimpanzees?

This post [under development] is based on a presentation to Manchester Business School Alumni in October 2007. You can access the presentation entitled A brief history of leadership here, [accessed via my slideshare powerpoints. Be patient. It does load, in about 15 seconds from my PC! ].

The lecture sets out the case for learning about today’s leadership dilemmas by reference to animal behaviors. This is in some ways a well-trodden path since Desmond Morris reminded us of our kinship with other animals as a naked ape.

The approach has to beware the pitfalls of anthropomorphism (attributing human behaviors to other animals). These challenges have been examined by John Stodart Kennedy as the new anthropomorphism.

These scholars have continued the debate on instinctive behaviors that followed the work of pioneering ethologists such as Nikolaas Tinbergen and Konrad Lorenz.

Drawing on these sources, the lecture argues that our modern concepts of leadership draw on residual ancient forms. Furthermore, our shared concepts and folk-memories contribute to universal archetypes.

It is suggested that as humans, through consciousness and learning, we become and create ‘the leaders we deserve’

Other points of interest: By re-evaluating the role of instinct in behaviors that are considered to exhibit leadership qualities, we approach the ancient question of whether leaders are born or made.

To go more deeply

In preparing the lecture, I drew heavily on the work of Richard Dawkins, and particularly The Ancestor’s Tale.

Anyone with strong creationist beliefs will probably have problems with the Darwinist treatment.


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.


Leadership in military and civilian life

July 24, 2007

In a question and answer session at Manchester Business School, with an audience of military officers and business leaders, Admiral Lord Boyce explored his leadership experiences. He described leadership as the art of persuading people to do more than they think they can. He identified decision-making and communicating as general competences essential to effective leadership

Q: There are a multitude of ways in which leadership has been described and defined. How do you see it?

MB: I can tell you what it seems to be from my experiences. I like to say that leadership is the art of persuading people to do more than they think they can.

Q: What key differences have you experienced working in military and non-military environments?

MB: There are obvious differences. In military life you are trained to lead, and also on how to be led, until the principles become ingrained. I mean training, not education. You train for leadership, as you would train for a Marathon. Also, the military conditions are different. You need to be able to depend on colleagues for your mutual survival. Decision-making has more life and death consequences than in most other professions. But there may be need to show initiative when you may be in a position to consult more widely in civilian life.

Q But there are similarities [between military and civilian leadership]?

MB: I would say there are general core components of leadership. Two of them concern decision-making and communications. Good decision-making requires skills at assimilating information and applying analytic ability. These skills often have to be combined with decisiveness. Effective communicators have to demonstrate clearly and convincingly the logic of their approach. I must also mention strength of character, the ability to delegate and show initiative.

Comment from audience: We used to teach delegation to business leaders. Now there’s less emphasis, more on ‘empowerment’. Perhaps we should revisit the importance of delegation skills …

Q Why are Women held back in leadership in the military? I left for that reason.

MB Times are changing. There is a very senior officer I can immediately think of in the navy for example, but she has succeeded on merit, not because of equal opportunities.

Q One of the most popular current television programmes is “The Apprentice”. From watching the programme there is a perception that successful leadership is developed through bullying. Do you believe you have to be aggressive to be a good leader?

Not aggressive. Historically you can point to contrary examples. One of my favourites is Shackleton. No, Not at all aggressive. I don’t watch much television, but what I’ve seen, you wouldn’t advance far in the Military today with that sort of bullying style. You would not get past Major, Lieutenant Colonel, maybe.

Q: How does leadership work in The House of Lords?

MB: The Conservative and labour Peers have a kind of ‘whip’ system [enforcement officers]. But managing cross-benchers … that’s like herding cats! [MB is a cross-bench or independent Peer]. Collectively though, it’s an excellent system. It wouldn’t work so well if there were elections when a constituency would vote for everyone. That would be different.

Q What do you look for when on an interviewing panel to select for a leadership position? Do the characteristics differ across different environments?

MB: Again there seem to be some general points you are looking out for. The successful candidate for any leadership job will be able to communicate clearly, show imagination and vision. The answers to interview questions give a pretty good indication of how honest he or she is being. Of course you have to do your homework. The references you get are a great help too.

Q: Finally, what advice would you give an officer taking up work in civilian life?

MB: Something that surprised me. Perhaps it should not have. You will meet far more individuals who seem to have no concern beyond their own self-interests.

Also you realize you have your own [military] jargon, you will have to learn another dialect to be accepted. And there is a lot of stereotyping about the military mentality.

There’s another difference worth mentioning: [Corporate]directors are increasingly becoming legally responsible for the conduct of their company. This is becoming more widespread, applying to charities and trusts as well as PLCs.

Blognotes

I am indebted to course director Jed Drugan of Manchester Business School for inviting me to participate in this event. My Q and A notes are reconstructed as faithfully as possible, but capture only part of the wide-ranging conversation. For those interested in following up the points raised in the discussion, I have added a few comments.

1 Leadership has been notorious for its multitude of definitions. There are even theories of why there are so many definitions. Lord Boyce has offered his personal perspective, and one close to the classical one from Stodgill with its characteristics of leadership as an act or process influencing others to achive some goal. It is also close to Yukl’s operational definition of leadership as influencing to understand and agree what is to be done and facilitating individual and collective efforts to accomplish shared goals. I assume that the Admiral’s characterization of leadership has been tested in many experiences in his distinguished naval career, and then in a range of political and corporate roles.

2 Cat herding. This cropped up in a recent taxonomy of leader/follower relationships by the British theorist Keith Grint. He suggests one of several versions of situational leadership, which result from different levels of commitment to community goals from leader and group (followers, subordinates, team members etc). The cat herding (cross bench independent mavericks) according to Grint will specialize in independence of spirit but arguably unproductive conflict.

2 Shackleton. An interesting leader in the ‘great explorer’ mode. His biographers (such as John Adair) suggest his leadership was consistent with MB’s perspective of leadership as inspiring others to achieve what they might otherwise have believed impossible.


MBS Barbeque: Future leaders relaxing

July 5, 2007



MBS Barbeque

Originally uploaded by t.rickards

This photo by Seong-Hye captures the barbeque I wrote about recently. The camera-hogs are made up of an MBA project team and members of a legal practice (can you decide who’s who?). In the background is the line for the barbeque. Hmm. I can almost smell it! Oh, yes, and I’m there somewhere as well …

Today the class of 2007 graduates. If the weather relents, Oxford Road will be awash with splashes of color, as students and scholars in ceremonial garb head for the great hall. The different colors of the gowns are as significant as regimental colours.

The well-wishers and family members almost outnumber the students. Quite a number will be in their own national costumes. It’s a day for dressing up. Once I complimented someone in a particularly majestic and vivid outfit. Where had he come from, I asked. Rochdale, he replied, with that regional accept that was as good as a passport identification.

Update

The weather did not relent. I’m afraid it was a grey day for the class of 2007, as it was for students from other parts of the University. As for a wedding, the weather doesn’t totally ruin the event. There’s always someone worse off. For example, that unflappable-looking Dean still stumbling over the names at the cermony despite coaching received in advance (Its the very short and very long names that need most practice). Then there are the members of the University’s ceremonial party who had an entire week on stage, applauding politely for six to eight hours a day, as the interminable lines of graduands process past their weary eyes.

Now how about combining the ceremony with a barbeque? That would be a welcome innovation.


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’.


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