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

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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.


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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