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Team Academy – trip to the wild west of management education

Options:     Print Version - Team Academy – trip to the wild west of management education, part 3 Print view

Theoretical base

Action learning originally came out of the work of Reg Revans, the director of the newly nationalized National Coal Board in post-war Britain. He believed that managers could gain a lot from discussing their problems with other managers, and devised the formula:

L = P + Q

Where:

  • L is learning,
  • P is "programmed knowledge", and
  • Q the ability to pose appropriate questions, and explore the unknown so that it becomes known.

Action learning has moved on since the 1940s, and is used in a variety of ways in management education and training, particularly in workplace learning, and postgraduate "community of practice" degrees, such as the University of Lancaster's MA in Management Learning and Leadership. Despite being subjected to various interpretations, there are a number of basic principles. Learning happens through discussion of a work-based problem, with the object not being merely to solve the problem, but to appreciate, and integrate, different points of view.

The trigger for learning is a real life situation, but reflection is as important as action. Group members need to identify their particular learning style – whether they are activists, reflectors, theorists or pragmatists according to the Honey and Mumford model. However, the whole group needs to move through the Kolb learning cycle of experience –> reflection –> generalization –> hypothesis testing, which combines the different learning styles.

Action learning normally takes place within what are known as action learning sets, which are stable groups of six to eight people. Students on the University of Lancaster's MA in Management Learning and Leadership work together in sets of four to six, as a series of self-managed learning communities, responsible not only for their own learning, but also that of the group.

TA's 20-strong teams are clearly intended to reproduce the action learning set idea, although with a larger than normal set. (The idea is to maximize learning through a sufficiently wide range of diverse personalities.) Another difference is that people do not discuss work situations, they create them.

The skills needed for action learning are

  • the ability to question,
  • to be an active listener,
  • to be good at giving and receiving feedback,
  • to understand, and give to, the process of the group,
  • to be creative at problem solving, and
  • to be able to reflect.

Unlike much traditional education which puts emphasis on individual achievement, it is also based on the premise that education is a shared process.

With its emphasis on teamwork and group learning, TA definitely sees education as a shared experience. It draws inspiration from the organizational theories of Peter Senge, particularly his belief in the "power of the community", and the "individual who is willing to give out his everything for a cause that matters".

The TA culture would not suit someone seeking the comforting discipline of regular assignments, term tests, etc. It is looking for people who are motivated from within, and who are able to survive within an unstructured environment, where there are no firm rules except the ones that you create. TA does have its introverts, however, who can still thrive if they are prepared to leave their comfort zone and join the cut and thrust of dialogue and experiment.

The term "community of practice" has been used to describe the TA process – the team is a group of professionals sharing and creating knowledge. TA also draws on the knowledge creation model of two Japanese theorists, Ikujiro Nonaka and Hirotaku Takeuchi. The initial dialogue involves participants looking at all aspects of a question, and once there is agreement on the best way forward, a model is drawn up and then put into action. Once completed, there is more dialogue about what went well, what did not go so well, and how the model could be developed and improved.

"It's about reflecting, innovating and acting," says Paula, echoing the "action/reflection" model of action learning. Her metaphor, however, is more prosaic than the Kolb Learning Cycle:

"We call it a washing machine because it goes round and round. It's dialogue then crystallizing and then modelling and then action. Then back to dialogue: reflecting, having new ideas and then again modelling."