Team Management Systems

Action Learning Via Teamwork

By Charles Margerison
Copyright © Charles Margerison. All rights reserved.

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Action learning, as a system for improving both individual and organizational performance, was developed by Professor Reg Revans. He recognized that it was difficult and costly for people to take time off work to go away to courses. Therefore, he invented a system for people to use their jobs as the basis for learning. He turned the conventional system, where you learned first and then applied it, upside down.

Initially, he was working with coal mine managers. He encouraged them to form together as a group, to share and compare what they were doing in each of their mines. An essential part of this process was to visit each other's workplace. On these visits, two things were required. Firstly, the host manager gave the visitors a tour and explained what he thought his mine and staff members were doing well, and also what they were not doing so well. Secondly, the visitors were invited to comment on what they had seen, and to give advice to the host manager.

In the subsequent weeks, each manager invited his colleagues to his own coal mine, and the process therefore became a mutual action learning group, or 'Set' as it was called. The results were dramatic. Not only did the managers learn with and from each other, but they went back to their own coal mines and applied the things they had seen and discussed. Improvements began to occur. For example, because one mine manager was controlling costs well, and showing the others how to do it, the other members were able to see how they could do it. Another manager had low accident rates and indicated what he was doing. Another outlined how he dealt with absenteeism, and another with how to improve quality.

The sharing and comparing between the managers had a big effect, not only on the mine operations, but also on the individual managers themselves. They began to realize they could do far more than before. They gained confidence and inspiration from each other. There was also an element of taking pride in showing others what could be done. Mutual cooperation, as well as the competitive element, provided the grounds for success. In the process, they were learning not just the technical aspects of how to solve problems, but the interpersonal team and management issues of how to get people together to discuss the problems and opportunities.

The action learning approach has subsequently expanded and been used in many situations with invariably good results. In particular, an organization called The Association of International Management Centres has been formed to help members advance their careers by action learning methods. Their work has taken action learning to over 40 countries, from Australia to Zimbabwe and on each occasion the processes have been adapted to the local culture and needs.

Action learning is something everyone can use in the work place. The Team Management Systems (TMS) models and Profiles are particularly relevant in helping the groups establish effective ways of working. To get underway you need to identify real work projects that people regard as important. Then form a group of people who are willing to share and compare. You can do this via staff and management training initiatives. The interaction can be via a website link, but it is preferable if you can also visit their place of work. Also, the video conference approach can work and be done face-to-face via the web if you have a camera link up.

Action learning has three steps. First: the assessment of problems and opportunities; second: action to improve the situation; and thirdly: a review and learning from the action. In this, it is important to write up what you are doing and what you learn. You need to send what you write to the other members of the group, so that they can give you feedback on your ideas and plans.

So, while the idea of action learning is simple, it will take time to arrange and to get the commitment of others. The Association of International Management Centers is a professional career and management development organization whose members gain award qualifications from Certificate level to professional Masters and Doctoral levels based on action learning project work, where the accreditation of prior experienced learning is also recognized.

Copyright © Charles Margerison. All rights reserved.

Dr Charles Margerison is a Partner in Team Management Systems, previously Professor of Management at the University of Queensland, Australia, and also at the Cranfield University School of Management, UK. Holding a PhD in Educational Psychology, he is the author and coauthor of many leading practical books and professional articles for managers, including Team Leadership: A Guide to Success with Team Management Systems and, with Dick McCann, Team Management: Practical New Approaches. His industrial experience includes time as CEO of a publications company and as a consultant to leading corporations. Charles is coauthor and developer of the Team Management Systems concepts and products.

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