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A Case Study of Action Learning In

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A growing concern expressed by employers is the failure of universities to provide

students with the skill sets needed by modern industry and businesses (Hibbert, 2000).

Significantly, it has been suggested that the learning afforded an individual by an

MBA is of limited relevance to their current employer, being better suited for career

progression outside an existing workplace (David, 2000). The suggestion is that some

part-time MBAs, whilst useful for gaining new jobs, have very little impact within

individuals' existing organizations. Recognizing this failing, universities are

responding by developing new and innovative approaches to education. One such

approach is the adoption and incorporation of action leaning (Frank, 1996). This paper

seeks to reports a case study of an example of this, an MBA in Engineering

Management offered by Bradford University School of Management. This program

offers a genuinely innovative approach to management education. Many examples of

the incorporation of action learning in higher education see it as either a subject of

study or as a limited aspect of a wider program of conventional study (Smith, 1998).

The MBA program considered here is, we believe, unique in being entirely centered on

an action learning approach in which participants come together as a group to work on

workplace-centered problems on an ongoing basis, and gain an accredited MBA degree

as a result.

In this paper we begin by briefly outlining the theoretical foundations of action

learning, before describing how these are applied in the MBA program in question,

focusing on the learning experience of participants. The program's effectiveness is then

considered, and proposals for assessing ongoing effectiveness will be considered and

discussed. Finally the challenges and limitations of adopting an action learning

approach are explored.

Theoretical foundations

Action learning has its inception in the work of Reg Revans, who, when director of

education at the National Coal Board in the UK in the 1940s, recognized that colliery

managers who were facing complex organizational problems might better learn by

talking through the problems with each other. Revans thought that by sharing their

concerns and plans with like-minded colleagues, the managers would gain greater

insights, inspirations, and motivation to cope with difficult and challenging times. His

expectation was that the action mangers then took would be better informed by that

discussion. Since this inception, there has been considerable debate on action learning,

and it is not our intention here to provide a detailed review of this literature; others

offer readers an overview of this canon at different points of time (Mumford, 1985;

1994; Smith and O'Neil, 2003a, b), and more detailed discussion of the role, purpose and

philosophy of an action learning is provided in several texts, including Pedler (1996)

and Weinstein (1998), and Revan's own books (Revans, 1980; 1998). We would direct

readers interested in learning more to these. The discussion here instead seeks to

outline the nature of the action learning approach that informs the philosophy of

learning of a particular program of study below.

Action learning is, in essence, an experience-based approach to learning based on

Revan's premise that managers learn most effectively with and from other managers

whilst dealing with real world problems (Pedler, 1991; Raelin, 1997; Revans, 1980;

Weinstein, 1998; Dilworth and Willis, 2003). It defines a process by which groups of

managers can address actual workplace issues or problems, in complex situations and

conditions. In doing so they learn through interaction, by discussing the problems they

face with peers, and then, through reflection, developing the actions to influence the

issue or problem they face. According to O'Hara et al. (1996, p. 16), "action learning is

less straightforward and more demanding than a traditional taught program but

potentially could achieve a much wider range of learning outcomes". It has the

potential for creating individual and organizational benefits that extend well beyond

those normally achieved through academic programs. Through action learning

"participants develop the capacity to be life-time learners, enabling them to adapt to

new situations and circumstances" (O'Hara et al., 1996, p. 21). Action learning works

well with individuals and organizations undertaking change and where individuals are

seeking learning that directly connects with their own work (O'Hara et al., 1997).

Action learning is centered on the idea that formal instruction is not enough to

achieve true learning. Revans (1998) suggests L, the total of an individual's learning is

made

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