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Team Academy – trip to the wild west of management education

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What happens on a Team Academy programme?

Henna, who chose TA because she "liked school but not that much reading or lectures" and was "inspired by the trip around the world", described her initiation as something of a culture shock. The head coach, Johannes Partanen, told the first years – known as penguins because they all walk in line and say yes to everything – that he was not a teacher, but a coach, that they were not students, but entrepreneurs, and (most challenging!) "now you have to make money".

Paula, another student, had a similar experience:

"We have a mental model that says, when you are at school, you are studying. And someone will tell you how things are and what you should do and which books you should read and when the test is coming. It's really difficult to understand that nothing is given here except for the premises."

One thing is given, however, and that is that people work in teams. When people sign up, they are put into teams of 20; they have to take a "team test" on the Meredith Belbin model, which helps determine the team role that will fit them best. Coaches then allocate people to teams, ensuring a sufficient diversity of roles within each team.

Once in their team, however, their first task is to form their own student cooperative company, initiate projects and run a money-making business.

As part of this process, people consider what they are good at and what skills are already in the team. Henna explains:

"It could be that there are hairdressers on the team so they decide, let's form a company called Good Hair Day. But there will be others on the team who know about marketing, and others who are very practical and good organizers. So there is a combining of skills."

An important part of learning is moving out of your comfort zone, so there is plenty of opportunity for new challenges. Paula says:

"I would feel bad about myself if after three-and-a-half years I didn't do anything that I didn't already know. The point of Team Academy is to be challenged all the time. Once you finish one project, you get an even bigger project. Normally, we are running three to five projects at a time."

About 50 per cent of the projects are large, long-term ones, although there are always short ones, such as running a marketing campaign or selling their services to companies. Or it could be running one of the many events that TA organizes, from student parties to international conferences.

In fact, TA is a major project in itself and many students help in its organization. Paula herself is project manager for Learning Expeditions, for example. There is also the anniversary, held around January 15th, which regularly hosts about 500 people and requires a project team to organize and generally take the administration away from the coaches.

One of the goals of TA is to develop leadership skills. Such skills cannot be taught in isolation, but require real, live projects. There is no shortage of these and the vast majority of students will probably take on several such challenges during the course of their studies; those who are reluctant to come forward may well find themselves pushed into them by their team.

There are no classes; instead, there are training sessions (once a week for older teams and twice a week for younger ones) where the role of the coach is to encourage the sort of dialogue which can facilitate peer learning and knowledge creation, known as "fertilizations".

In these sessions, everybody sits round a circle so that they can see one another, and discuss what projects they did, what they have learned, how the finances are going, what was last month's turnover, and what can be done to make next month's turnover bigger. From day one, they have to think and act as entrepreneurs.

Photo: Figure 2. A Team Academy classroom.

Figure 2. A Team Academy "classroom"

The whole curriculum of TA is based on action learning, where learning takes place through real-world activity. The theoretical base comes from reading and from talking to coaches and customers. The student is free to create his or her own reading plan, selecting books from a number of areas, such as:

  • leadership
  • innovation
  • learning
  • customers
  • entrepreneurship.

Each book is worth a number of reading points, with the target being 120 points.

Each student has their own learning contract which defines goals, aspirations, and how they will be measured, and these contracts feed into the overall learning contract for the team.

The ways of assessing students is varied and includes:

  • 360 degree assessment
  • online reflective writing
  • "birth giving sessions".

The latter involve solving a particular customer case with a presentation backed by written theoretical material, which is evaluated by the customer, coaches and students.

A recent "birth giving session" took place over two days with 14 students, who had to solve three cases:

  1. Model a way of coaching for more open communication for the government lottery company, Veikkaus Oy.
  2. Create an event for AKK Sports at Rally Finland that will attract 10,000 more customers.
  3. Create a year round sports centre from a ski centre and a golf centre, currently located separately but adjacent to one another.

Teams are also assessed by their income, the cash flow, and the amount and quality of the customer base, e.g. customers are ranked as:

  • A = 10,000 € sales plus a continuing relationship
  • B = 1,000-5,000 € sales and an intermittent relationship
  • C = 1,000 € and a one-off purchase.

And, in addition, everyone has to do a thesis, which is assessed as in other courses.