The Manchester Method as an educational innovation



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).

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).


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.

13 Responses to The Manchester Method as an educational innovation

  1. […] escuela de negocios de la universidad de Manchester ha publicado una presentación sobre el método que usan para “crear líderes” en algo que, dicen, es una comunidad de […]

  2. […] was thus able to draw on the basic principles of The Manchester Method, outlined in an earlier […]

  3. Tony Berry says:

    A nice piece to consider, thankyou.

    Graham Barlow had considerable influence on the initial design of the MBA and his engagement with the system psychodynamics that led to the development of the use of projects as vehicles for learning, designed as a progressive removal of constraints and supports that provoked learning.
    There was a danger that projects would become mere exercises of knowledge in puzzle solving; much effort was put in to stop this but many students preferred this aproach as it was safe and unchallenging.
    Tom Lupton produced a nice aphorism; the method was about learning by thinking about what you are doing.

    The method was similar to experiential learning and to action research.

    To check on the value of the project method I once set an (assessed!)essay asking all the MBA second year students to critically review their experience of three projects. The 90 plus papers gave six accounts of each project! Crudely about a third of the MBAs produced fascinating and open ended papers with reflection and insight bubbling over; the best were extraordinary. The middle third were good efforts at connecting theory and practice; the final third were somewhat dreary recitals of events with some connection with ideas but little understanding of the authors role in the projects groups or of the management processes in the groups.

    The papers were returned to the MBAs with an invitation for members of projects groups to meet and read each others essays, as these contained different insights from experience of “the same project group”! Again about a third of the MBAs took up this invitation and many of these reported lively and extended discussions. One of the groups formed itself as a kind of reference support group for reflection on experience of learning in the MBA programme.

    In pursuit of insight (or as a cry for help)I asked an academic expert in management learning to review the essays. He found them very rich and he agreed with the crude “thirds” classification. He also thought that the MBAs had a quite different conception of thoery than that held by academics. This has lately been opened up again in the theory and practice debate.

    I suppose my current view is that the “cognitive kids” in the faculty never did understand management development as anything other than knowledge application to problems and hence always undermined experiential leanring about management because they had no undersatnding of it. Such colleagues had little competence as project group tutors. Many MBAs were the same and did not cope well with the demands of experiential learning. For some MBAs therefore the project method took on the form a behaviour modification learning via a series of trials and error events.
    Maybe this kind of experiental project learning, rich and effective, is only suitable for those ready to do it. So how can people be helped to become ready for it?

    As a footnote I have witnessed some remarkable communities of malpractice.

    I would be glad to discuss any of this.
    Tony Berry

  4. Tudor says:

    News from an old friend.

    Great and enriching.

    As this is an open site I must fill in a few points. Graham Barlow and Tom Lupton were true pioneerig teachers, leaners, and scholars at Manchester Business School, as was Tony Berry, the author of this message. Another mentor for many of us was John Morris.

    One of my increasingly urgent drivers in working on this blog is the risk that much wisdom of the project method developed will be lost if some of it is not re-captured. So it is an unexpected treat to find TB’s contribution. Tony, is there some extant documentation of the work you mention?

    Even as you’ve written it, there’s much to reflect on. 30% of individuals seems a good base for optimism. It would be nice also to see such efforts as this (I won’t call them experiments) in other places …

    Best wishes


    PS: Long may the discussion continue ..(on and off line)

  5. KS Lai says:

    Dear Tutor,

    Glad to see this!! I like learning and understand how competences create and sustain among individuals and groups, that is very important piece of knowledge for any future developments.


  6. KS Lai says:

    I read the PPT. I think all management students should learn innovative learning!!


  7. alistair mant says:

    Very interesting indeed. No mention of the incursion into downtown student politics by the MBA class of ’68. That, from memory, was an exciting vindication (or development) of Tom Lupton’s idea – students energised to intervene in and experiment on the real world as a result of an institutionally-based action-learning-cum-action research experience. Discuss. AM

  8. Tudor says:


    Many thanks for this. It would be nice to capture your experiences for today’s MBAs.
    Were you ‘at the barricades? ‘

    I would like to go on record that Alistair was the originator of the term Leaders we deserve, and that this blog was created many years later. It was subsequently a shock to (re)discover Alistair’s book of the same name, which you can still find on Google.

  9. […] You can find out more about the wider educational principles behind this as an example of The Manchester Method of experiential learning […]

  10. […] inter­ested in the notion of Com­munit­ies of prac­tice This lead me to some reports about The Manchester Method as a means of teach­ing (espe­cially with regard to MBA stu­dents). There is a help­ful […]

  11. Alistair Mant mentions “incursion into downtown student politics by the MBA class of ’68. That, from memory, was an exciting vindication (or development) of Tom Lupton’s idea – students energised to intervene in and experiment on the real world as a result of an institutionally-based action-learning-cum-action research experience.”

    I am interested in finding out more.
    Alistair, are you reading this?

  12. hlgray says:

    I am hoping we can follow up on this tradition in the new Grove international management school once it gets going. I worked closely with John Morris at Salford University on the MSc in Strategic Leadership for nearly twenty years until he died. We developed an approach based on dialogue and conversation whereby we simply tried to support learners to reflect on their experiences, understand them at a deep level and gain a little wisdom therefrom.

    I have set up The Grove Institute to follow up on previous work and would be delighted if others would care to join us. Some meetings will be at Lancaster University.get in touch for more information

    Tony Berry and John Burgoyne have joined me in this venture.

    Do get in touch if you would like to know more or join us.

    Harry Gray

  13. Dear Harry

    I’ll reply via LWD but wanted to add some personal support for what you are doing at Grove.

    John was a dear friend of mine, and Tony and John B are also long-time colleagues and friends.

    My new colleague Daniel Muzio from Lancster is taking over my role as coordiator of leadership programmes on the MBSW executive education MBA.

    wamest regards,


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