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.
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).
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).
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.