A message that clearly impacted Queen Elizabeth II, and one which she recently mentioned as she approached her platinum jubilee, was offered by her first Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. He said “The longer you can look back, the farther you can look forward.”
It strikes me that the older I become the farther back I can look. I believe in this principle, and so was pleased to notice recently that the publisher of management books, Routledge, has published under the Routledge Revivals imprint, a number of otherwise forgotten gems from the history of organizational and leadership learning.
Having spent the last 20 years of my career pursuing, promoting and practising action learning I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to get my hands on the account of the action learning programme that Reg Revans introduced to engineering giant The General Electric Company in 1972. The book More than Management Development, edited by David Casey and David Pearce was first published in 1977.
Having spent my early career in the world of industrial and management training (yes we called it training back then) at GEC some 10-15 years after this experimental programme had taken place, I was interested to read first-hand accounts of the programme from administrators and participants who were the high potential leaders of the day.
It’s not everyone’s idea of a Summer book for the beach but I am pleased I read it, notwithstanding some of dated language and terminology.
Prioritizing action learning
Reg Revans noted that he had been invited by Sir Arnold Weinstock, the Managing Director of GEC, for the first time to enter a business through the ‘front door’ to introduce the ideas of action learning where managers in the business were empowered to work on their own business challenges, a form of ‘autotherapy’.
I take it that he meant he was invited in by the top leader and not sliding in through a side door to meet the HR or training manager. GEC was one of the engineering giants and Weinstock was an iconic industrialist of his time.
The book even names the people involved in the programme including the several HR professionals I recognized from my period at GEC. Their role as Advisers was to support the learning set members (5-8 managers) share their learning, in the mode of ‘learning catalyst’ as I later called it, when considering the essential capabilities of action learning facilitators (Bright Horizons for Action Learning).
Projects were defined as either:
- In role (so a participant is a leader working on a project which is directly relevant to their current role in their own business).
- In business (for participants working on a new challenge faced by their current business).
- In another business (participants go into a totally different business from their current job role – this was limited to the Post Office and the Civil Service as external businesses that hosted GEC leaders).
Participant managers were encouraged in action learning sets to diagnose their multi-disciplinary problems, such as improving productivity, meeting demanding customer needs, and competing internationally, typically by working across the silos and dedicating one day per week for nine months to the programme.
Not all participant accounts were positive about the programme but many recognized that success might be judged sometime after its completion. This is a key point also resonant of the evaluation of the London-based Hospitals Internal Communications Project, 1965-68 which Revans led, and the value of which was evidenced sometime after its completion.
Taking the long view
This may be a difficult message to accept in an age where we demand speed of delivery of results and where product and project life-cycles have accelerated considerably. But let’s not fall into the trap of believing our times are unique and beware of ‘terminal uniqueness.’ Sometimes taking the long view is appropriate even if not fashionable.
By the time I had joined GEC Computers (a business briefly managed by Winston Churchill’s grandson Rupert Soames) and GEC Marconi Avionics in the 80s there was less talk of action learning, but there was a strong legacy of a pragmatic learning culture. My role was to transform the apprenticeship scheme from time-serving to one based on standards and to crank the handle on the machine with several levels of management training programme pegged to the hierarchical career pathway.
Culturally, GEC was still baronial and very much decentralized. Leaders of the businesses were seen as barons controlling the operation of their engineering operations and their in-person meeting with Lord Weinstock was an annual review of their finances to set the direction for the following year. Weinstock’s influence at a local level was indirect.
Though I do remember if he wanted to communicate with all staff, a memo would be pinned on every factory and office noticeboard typed in upper case. You couldn’t walk by without noticing he had something to say!
In 2000 I was offered a Fellowship and invited by an action learning institute to develop a method called Action Learning Questions in order to ensure accredited action learning programmes were fit for the modern organization and could be assessed and accredited against academic standards.
With a few colleagues, some who had worked with Revans, we started by considering the simple question ‘How would Reg Revans do it?’ and immediately started to question the value of senior management programmes designed around predetermined content (what Revans in his learning equation called ‘P’ for Programmed knowledge or instruction).
Time for reinvention
We were leaning towards the radical idea of throwing out of the reams of lecture notes and course manuals and designing our educational programmes around questions that the client or business wanted to tackle rather than spoon-feeding knowledge collated by academics remote from the business. This was not an easy sell to the universities and business schools from whom we sought accreditation; their stock in trade was more the ‘P’ than the ‘Q’.
I had been asked at the same time by a leading UK bank to propose a leadership development programme which would make a difference to their actual business with the proviso their managers couldn’t be taken off to business schools for taught input. This led me to the conclusion that a programme should be offered which was based essentially around the ‘Q’ in Revans’ learning equation, that is Questions.
And so the concept of Action Learning Questions was born. We designed a full Master’s degree in leadership entirely based around Action Learning Questions (ALQ) which were relevant at the time to help the business transform into the future. Questions such as:
- What will our branch network look like in 20 years time?
- How do we motivate and engage our teams during periods of significant change?
- How do we ensure we have a future by reducing impairments (bad debt) at the start of a global financial crisis?
By allowing participants to effectively design their own program content, and by providing a robust ‘container’ in the form of the ALQ process and assessment system, we created a sustainable and agile educational leadership development process.
Now 22 years on this has been tested, proven and adapted with leadership programmes delivered to businesses around the world and accredited by several business schools from undergraduate to postgraduate level. Beyond delivering benefits to specific businesses, the collaborative and inquiry-based nature of this approach has led to innovation in emerging and evolving professions including:
- Global sourcing (GSA UK – Qualifications)
- Organization design and development (through the UK Civil Service programme though which over 1,000 civil servants have graduated and the Mayvin programme which is now offered as Masters (MA) in People and Organization Development in partnership with the University of Chichester.
- Public procurement in developing countries.
- Business transformation in healthcare and education sectors.
Where professions have been open to innovation in how they approach Continuing Professional Development (CPD) of their members they have also used this approach to focus on professional impact rather than counting endless hours of ‘input’ such as courses attended or coaching hours completed (see here and here)
Next steps for success
The training and learning and development profession has for the last 30 years that I have been involved with it, endlessly discussed the challenge of evaluating the impact of training according to Kirkpatrick’s model of four levels and the difficulties of evaluating at level 4 – ‘impact’.
I have come to realize that starting with a model which was created to keep trainers in employment was a fool’s errand. Often trainers have constructed pseudo-scientific formulae to attempt to prove the impact of their training intervention with questionable cause and effect claims. Often this is in an attempt to normalize and standardize what is delivered.
Time is better spent by learning and organization development professionals working as facilitators of learning who bring leaders together and ask straightforward questions in order to provide the basis for offering any solution.
Here are a few such questions. Notice these do not start by providing a shopping list of topics that can be offered as training interventions. The nature and content of such knowledge can be determined at a later stage and more efficiently on an ‘as and where needed’ basis in order to help leaders tackle their big questions.
- What are the leadership or business challenges you face today which will get worse if you ignore them?
- Who cares about this and how can you engage them in discussion?
- How much time can you make available to meet with other leaders in order to help each other with your respective challenges?
- What support do you need and how can I help you?
So let’s stop:
- Obsessing over predetermined (behavioral) learning objectives when designing training.
- Wasting time counting the inputs (e.g. training days, coaching hours etc.)
- Valuing training content (with a limited half-life) over learning process.
- Being seduced by learning technology for the sake of it.
- Thinking we have or know the content that the client needs, and therefore pushing the same on them. Less selling, more consulting.
- With business challenges and turn them into collaborative Action Learning Questions.
- Accepting we don’t have the answers to these questions but can use a powerful collaborative process to get people from diverse backgrounds working on them.
- Enabling leaders to admit and work with their ignorance
- Learning from the past so we can look forward to the future with hope, confidence and positivity.
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