Action learning – use of hands-on involvement in management training

Action learning – use of hands-on involvement in management training

Devera Pine

Action Learning

Traditionally, management-development courses take the classroom approach. Consultants use lectures, slides and discussions of textbook problems to teach a company’s employees how to be better managers. Unfortunately, just as in school, much of what employees learn in these courses is forgotten when it comes to real-life on-the-job problems.

Enter the hands-on approach to management development: Employees learn management techniques by coming up with solutions to actual problems the company faces. “If you want people to grow and to use what you teach them to solve real problems, you have to set up something different from the usual classroom model,” says John Lawrie, president of Applied Psychology, Inc., a Crawfordsville, IN-based management-consulting firm. Lawrie calls his hands-on approach “action learning” and bases it on the idea that it’s easier for people to act themselves into a new way of thinking than to think themselves into a new way of acting.

One way action learning works is to have a company’s employees form groups to focus on different problems they see in the organization. For each problem, the groups settle on one of three strategies–solve it, minimize it or live with it.

At one electric utility for which Lawrie consulted, employees flet that the rating system used to award raises gave them little feedback about how to improve their own performance. They also worried that their bosses overlooked many employee accomplishments when filling out the employee-evaluation forms.

With Lawrie’s help, a group of employees studied the problem and widened the scope of the evaluation to include courses and schoolwork an employee might undertake to improve skills. They also added a worker self-rating form, through which bosses could be reminded of worker innovations and positive changes. Nearly all of the company’s bosses–90%–were grateful for the increased input, says Lawrie, while the employees were happy to supply it. “Workers were also more vigilant about assessing their own performance and growth,” Lawrie adds.

In the course of developing solutions, Lawrie says, two things happen: First, the groups run into snags and need more information (for example, how to overcome a group’s resistance to change), which Lawrie provides. Second, a leader emerges in each group, and Lawrie helps him or her achieve a cooperative and consensual solution to the problem in question.

The advantage to this approach, Lawrie believes, is that the changes the groups institute, and the leadership skills the employees learn, are more likely to stick. The disadvantages? First, action learning is a lot harder on the consultants because they cannot simply make a professional-looking presentation to management about, say, improving productivity, and then leave town. Instead, the focus on real problems creates a real risk of damage to the trainer’s reputation if the problems don’t get solved, says Lawrie, who is also a psychology professor at Wabash College in Indiana. Second, groups can spend lots of time working on a problem and in spite of everybody’s best effort arrive at bad solutions. A chosen plan might be cost-ineffective, for example, or rely on the good will of an uncooperative labor union. Real-world action learning can mean real mistakes, real failure and real dollars lost by a client.

Still, at least some management consultants believe action learning is the wave of the future. “In the last few years, the trend has been to look at financial considerations first; people considerations second,” says Robert S. Nadel, managing director for The Hay Group. “The pendulum is shifting back now,” he notes, because companies that treat people like sheep have developed turnover and productivity problems.

Says John Childress, president and CEO of the Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group in Long Beach, CA, “A lot of firms are still back in the lecture mode–but every month you see more hands-on involvement.”

COPYRIGHT 1989 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group