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The Art of Action Learning at MIT Sloan Conference

Posted By Guy Pfeffermann, Thursday, August 09, 2012
Guy Pfeffermann

I attended a superb conference at MIT-Sloan (in their new, spectacular, building), about "New Dimensions in Action Learning”. Especially by virtue of its various "labs” (of which the Global Health Delivery Lab or ghdLab is a spectacular example) action learning has become partand parcel of MIT’s DNA.

David Schmittlein, MIT-Sloan’s dean and Anjali Sastry, who runsghdLab, both old friends of GBSN, opened the conference. Gurus such as Yury Boshyk and Edgar Schein cast light on the history of action learning. Few of the MBA students sent in teams by various business schools in order to test their problem-solving skills against real-life situations probably suspect that when it developed in the UK in the 1950s, action learning originated among Cambridge physicists and was mainly about personal development. Empowering small groups to take control of their lives was at the core of action learning. Transplanted to the US in the 1970s with the help of Ross Perot and General Electric, the focus of action learning shifted decisively to problem-solving and implementation. Action learning was at its best when teams were unfamiliar with both the problems and the setting. So, for example, GE would throw groups of lawyers at some complex jet engine problems. The theory was that an entirely fresh look might produce solutions that had eluded experts.

Academia is generally averse to action learning because it is very labor-intensive, and because faculty are required to shift from being teachers to facilitating. Nevertheless, it is becoming increasingly popular, especially in business schools. Teams learn about interdependence, trust, respect, open-mindedness, as well as discipline. MIT-Sloan’s Erin Sullivan cites a student who said:"I never imagined that I would be able to use my MBA skills to improve peoples lives.”

Different business schools have different philosophies about action learning. The Tuck School of Business fields "student consultants”; client satisfaction with their recommendations is key to successful performance. Stanford’s Graduate School of Business on the other hand emphasizes leadership - according to Stanford’s Maria Jenson, for a student, leading a team is the most powerful experience. So, there may be a spectrum between primarily student-focused and client-focused action learning, hence a variety of approaches.

I came away from this conference with the conviction that the art of running successful student teams is not an easy one. Once a school possesses the necessary skills action learning can enhance student learning, the welfare of organizations hosting students – which are quite often run by alumni – and the reputation of the school.

Few emerging markets business schools are practicing action learning on a significant scale. As part of its mission to advance management education that delivers international best practice with local relevance GBSN will organize a best practices action learning workshop at the business school of Malaysia’s Tun Abdul Razak University. This is one of the first projects of GBSN’s pilot BRiDGE Program, Building Relationships to Develop Global Excellence. I look forward to seeing more developing world schools embrace action learning as a valuable part of their programs.

Guy Pfeffermann is CEO and founder of the Global Business School Network.


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