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.


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’.


Leadership: Going from good to great

June 8, 2007

What separates the good from the great in team projects? Managing the task effectively is a necessity. Three inter-related issues repeatedly crop up in MBA business assignments. They concern managing boundaries, managing expectations, and managing for insights

It is one week from final presentation day. A team turns up in my office for final words of advice. Every project is different. Every team is different. But their concerns this time have a very familiar ring to them. Are they on the right track? How will their sponsor (‘business client’) react to their findings? What to do about what they’ve learned in confidence?

To muck about with a saying from that great Management theorist Tolstoi, all teams fail for the same reasons. Each team that succeeds does so for its own unique reasons.

So its easier to alert teams for what often goes wrong, than to say what they have to do to get everything right. Their project could stand for hundreds of projects. The tricky thing is to sort out what are the commonalities. What advice from past experience might be extracted, and offered for this particular team?

Lord of the Flies?

Some team behaviors are right out of Lord of the Flies. Or The Apprentice TV series. The team is to all extents and purposes a bunch of individuals each struggling for individual success. It’s dog eat dog. The design of The Apprentice TV series forces participants to re-enact that familiar drama. One of its messages is personal survival. Survival at all costs. Any collaboration is minimal. There may be a veneer of collective sense of purpose implied in public at presentation time. But it is rather difficult for the dominant and dominating leader to come across as part of a unit which has been able to bring all its talents to the tasks they faced.

Lord of the Flies (LOTF) teams can get by. Thre are quite a number among MBA project teams. They tend to ‘stick it out’ and blag themselves to a decent rating in a final presentation, promising thmselves never to work together on another assignment. Decent result for the short-term maybe, but not dream-team behaviors.

This team did not fall into the LOTF category. The was no ‘chief honcho’ . No ‘followers’, ‘nodding donkeys’ , or ‘loafers’. Just a bunch of people who seemed to be sharing in a pre-agreed plan. Also, they seemed open to suggestions which required them to re-examine and perhaps depart from elements of that pre-conceived plan. In other words, they showed they were capable of being flexible in response to new ideas. If they behaved that way in my office, there was every chance they had behaved in a similar way at their sponsor’s workplace.

Who owns the project? Managing across boundaries

When teams present their findings, who are they really trying to impress? This is where The Lord of the Flies analogy breaks down. In Business School jargon, the team is learning to manage across various different boundaries. It is in the later stages of a project that some teams begin to grapple with this. They may well ‘delight the customer’. But the team now realizes there is more than one customer, and ‘delighting’ one may not ‘delight’ another.

The team can come to terms with these ambiguities in a final presentation and in their final report. In general, the process is managed by a bit of simplification into ‘who owns the project’, with just a hint of acknowledgement of other interests around.

In these projects, the team may have started as if their first contact was their one and only client. Then they found that a more senior figure in the organization has quite different views. In this specific case they had found that there were two sub-cultures in the business, each with differing views about what the company needed to do.

There is another boundary to manage. The entire project will be assessed and graded as part of the participants’ business degree. Faculty members will also be attending the final prentation to the client.

Incidentally, some students think that makes the whole thing unrealistic. I argue it is only another version of business life, when new team members are open to so-called 360 degree evaluations of their performance.

Managing expectations

As you consider how to manage those boundaries, you will inevitably begin to consider how to manage expectations of those interest groups. One obvious possibility is preparing in advance, checking out as far as possible the expectations of key players. Here again, it will be a judgement call. My own experiences suggest that successful teams have not just prepared themselves, but prepared the sponsor. But they will also have one or two pleasant surprises up their sleeves. It’s the bad news that is best pre-signalled.

Managing for insights

A great result will mean that the team will have managed expectations of key constituents including the project sponsor or client. It will have attended to differing expectations, which may be particularly intense at meetings where wider networks of interests are represented. The project task will have been tackled in terms of its objectives. The objectives of an initial brief may have been tested and negotiated.

All this may produce a good result. But not a great one. For that, there needs to be something special. A final presentation offers one situtation rich in opportunities to demonstrate excellence.

Agagin, drawing on experience, I would say that effective creativity enhances a message and is not substitute for one. A recent example was the ‘pitch’ made to the BBC by the Salford consortium which revealed an exciting vision of the city of the future. The London Olympic bid had an equally powerful video, which switched attention from the event to the children who would benefit from the event.

But creativity ‘works’ only if its intended ‘consumer’ buys it. If your sponsor heads up a finance organization, then she is likely to respond differently than would a sponsor from a dynamic and fast-growing IT outfit. Creativity in business will always involve risk and judgement.

How to get an A

How might a team get an A for its work? They may increase their chances by concentrating on the primary examiners and trying to find out their particular preferences. But in practice this is never straight-forward. One academic examiner may be highly influenced by the project sponsor. Another may not. It is not unknown for teams to win the active support of their sponsor to lobby the examiners on their behalf, only to find that may have the contrary effect to the one desired.

This team had got to the point of realizing that ‘getting an A’ should not be the only or even dominant objective as they reached the end of the project. They would take it as an opportunity for testing their own skills in business projects, and for discovering how they might work as a team for future challenges. Even for having an enjoyable experience in the process. Now that’s something they can self-assess as an A.

Leadership lessons

I’m aware that the content of this post hardly toches on leadershp. A few ‘don’ts’, perhaps. Don’t be a bully. Don’t encourage Lord of the Flies behaviors.

By implication I have been making a case for a creative leadership style touched on in an earlier post. In these MBA projects, leadership is more obviously a task distributed across team members. Nevertheless, there may still be a valued place for an individual who may have earned the right to be the most prominent team member in decisions and in those boundary-spanning situations in which expectations are tested.


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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