The International Management Centres Association (IMCA) was established in 1964 by a team of senior industrialists and academics from traditional UK University Business Schools including Cranfield and Bradford in the UK and Queensland in Australia. The Association, whose founding president is Reg Revans, is dedicated to career development through Action Learning, where participants use both theoretical knowledge and practical experience to learn how to tackle problems within their own organisations. Having launched its first Action Learning programmes in 1984, the Association has run programmes at a number of different management levels for more than 30,000 managers in over forty countries. In 1994 IMCA became the first business school in the world to offer Action Learning programmes completely online. Honorary members of IMCA include Richard Branson, Charles Handy and David Kolb.
TrainingZONE spoke to Dr Richard Hale, who is Director of Action Learning Forums, IMCA, and Managing Director of Value Projects, a programme aimed at helping individuals to define their vision within the workplace.
TrainingZONE: What was the thinking behind the setting up of the International Management Centres Association?
Dr Richard Hale: It was originally founded in 1964 by a visionary group of business-based educators - the first alumni of British Business Schools, who recognised they had in common a commitment to Action Learning, having heard of Reg Revans' work. It was intended to be a professional association dedicated to individual and organisation performance.
In 1982, the association became IMCA (www.i-m-c.org), with the express aim of embracing Action Learning in all areas of work, setting up their own programme of Action Learning sessions.
TrainingZONE: How do people come to hear about the Association's work? It operates worldwide now, doesn't it?
Dr Richard Hale: Yes, it's very much international now, more than 2000 organisations in over 40 countries have been involved. We've built management centres around the world through on the ground experience in a range of organisations - companies like ICI, Whitbread, Bass and NHS Trusts. The 'associates' - rather than students - get to know of the association through its reputation.
TrainingZONE: The Action Learning website (www.action-learning.org) launched relatively recently. It seems to have a community outlook similar to TrainingZONE's.
Dr Richard Hale: It's about using the web as powerful vehicle for communication and sharing. The Action Learning Institute enables people to come together as a virtual community - there's a forum for meetings, discussions, resources and information available. We've been working on looking at how you create learning using virtual forums. It's very interesting educationally that it's so easy now to access a body of knowledge online - the concept of the traditional University which protected its knowledge is being challenged. Through the CPD Business School people will be able to access business journals wherever they are in the world, and access articles to tackle specific questions relating to their own needs.
For me, this may be very high-tech, but it also has its roots very much in the original principles of Action Learning - you start with questions in the learning process, something which philosophers have considered important for thousands of years. Managers can start with their own questions and go in search of the information they need, gaining a better insight into their work.
The Online CPD Business School being set up with Sift (TrainingZONE's parent company) will allow people with common professional interests to work together on Action Learning qualifications based on real work challenges and questions and then share them with like-minded professionals, as well as giving access to a virtual library.
TrainingZONE: Can you briefly define Action Learning for those that aren't aware of it or maybe don't fully understand the concepts involved?
Dr Richard Hale: Action Learning can be summarised simply as a formula put forward by Reg Revans: learning = questioning + programmed knowledge. To expand on this, for real learning to take place, one has to ask searching questions of oneself and others. Revans talked about 'comrades in adversity', where people come together in a group, which is known as an Action Learning set. The power would come from their combined ignorance as opposed to the role of a supposed expert lecturing them with knowledge.
It's an interesting formulation that challenges much of accepted wisdom about education as we know it. In traditional settings, someone 'removed from the action' defines the syllabus rather than someone on the ground. With Action Learning, the syllabus and agenda are defined by managers. Typically what happens is that managers come together in Action Learning sets, support each-other and go out in search of knowledge in order to tackle questions. On IMCA programmes managers come together either with managers within their own organisation or others, and share and compare with the help of the faculty. The exciting thing is that increasingly we're able to use the opportunities of web technology to create new forms of Action Learning for the future.
TrainingZONE: Do the practicalities of creating and sustaining Action Learning Sets pose many problems?
Dr Richard Hale: Well, the IMCA programmes have built-in flexibility on the basis that we don't work to the traditional academic calendar. Instead, we have rolling sets, so that people can join at different stages. A strength of the rolling set approach is that people coming into the set join those who've already been there for a while - people who are more experienced can then graduate into support or mentoring roles. You always have to address issues of self-motivation if you start a programme of education the Action Learning dynamic is designed to support this.
TrainingZONE: As it's concerned with feelings, does Action Learning draw on physiological research at all?
Dr Richard Hale: My personal view is that there's a relationship between thinking, feeling and behaviour. There's been a major focus on behaviour over the last few years - competencies, skills - the danger is that we don't address the issues of how thinking and feeling relates to behaviours. We should address all three in change process. In terms of how that translates into AL activities, it will vary from one set to the next - it depends partly on the set members and their interests and priorities.
TrainingZONE: Is Action Learning potentially helpful for anyone? Presumably those more open to ambiguity are more likely to embrace it?
Dr Richard Hale: I'd agree that it takes an education process in itself to become familiar with what Action Learning means. It's appropriate for some people and not others - for those in search of a mass of programme knowledge at some stages of their career, lecture-based traditional programmes are entirely appropriate, but managers working in organisations where there are no obvious answers to questions can benefit from exploring it further. A first question to ask would be why might I be interested in this? As a start, they might get involved with discussion through ALI discussion online. They might well read around the subject as well - there are useful publications available from Pedlar, or Michael Marquardt's 'Action Learning in Action' (published 1999).
TrainingZONE: Is Action Learning to scary for some people to contemplate?
Dr Richard Hale: One of the problems with Action Learning is that it's a term that is often misinterpreted as very academic. Also, some people who have deeper experiences of Action Learning may portray it as mystical, and in that sense, it can put people off. My personal approach to Action Learning - and I believe everyone develops their own approach - is that it's very practical. Having spent 20 years in management education, I realised there were flaws in terms of some of the classic things that we were doing in assuming we were changing behaviour. Action Learning is a very practical approach, very common sense.
TrainingZONE: Do you think there's a place for Action Learning further down the curriculum, either for older schoolchildren or those entering University?
Dr Richard Hale: Absolutely. Action Learning could apply very powerfully at these levels as well. When people move from secondary education and tertiary to the business world, they often find it a quantum leap in terms of their approach to learning. I would argue strongly that Action Learning as an approach would work extremely well with schoolchildren and beyond - they could benefit from working in sets and recognising they have something to contribute to the learning process rather than being lectured from the front of the classroom.
TrainingZONE: With regard to the University of Action Learning, how does certification fit with the concept of Action Learning? It seems to be by its nature an unstructured, organic process.
Dr Richard Hale: Yes, it's true that this has sometimes led to difficulties. To make it work, there needs to be system, process and rigour.
IMCA took a very visionary leap a few years ago and created the University of Action Learning in Colorado. The UAL is the corporate university which awards the professional qualifications, which are accredited through the Distance Education and Training Council based Washington. People involved in IMCA programmes do so with a learning set - either a global learning set or in company learning sets - as they achieve qualifications to achieve a professional award. There are also different levels of professional membership.
From a personal point of view, I have been working with Dr Charles Margerison on developing value improvement projects being used in organisations, to provide them with a system which takes people through a process of defining their vision and sharing through workshops. We have developed team projects, leadership projects and CPD projects, all using action learning combined with an e-projects system and an e-learning facility. We call this form of Action Learning 'Value Improvement Projects' (see www.viprojects.com).
There have been some interesting developments within IMCA in the last year with the creation of Action Learning Questions - a bank of questions managers can select from for their Action Learning. They can also create their own in discussion with a faculty member. By tackling an Action Learning question over 6 weeks they can cumulatively build credits towards their own qualification. The manager needs to formulate the question, investigate, gather views and knowledge, explore how other people are tackling problems and have to write this process up. Their response is assessed against certain criteria - e.g. have they actually done it (the action). The key principle is that it's not what you know but what you do that is important - a contrast with what I have often come across in traditional business schools, where often you don't implement knowledge.
TrainingZONE: How is Action Learning influencing other methods of formal learning such as programmes at traditional Business Schools?
Dr Richard Hale: Many Business Schools pay lip service to it - their programmes may have an Action Learning component. It's a philosophy that is sometimes misunderstood or misused, but having said that I believe it is taking root. It would be interesting to consider whether it's taking root in organisations more than business schools - there's a sense that people working in management development have for some time realised there is a flaw with traditional off job courses or day release education programmes. They've been crying out for something more different, more effective.
TrainingZONE: Obviously Reg Revans (the founder of Action Learning) has been crucial to your work. Has he contributed directly to Action Learning?
Dr Richard Hale: Absolutely - the evidence is there to see. Revans started formulating his views of Action Learning after talks with his father who worked on the investigation following the sinking of the Titanic - he found that many people who were involved knew it wouldn't work. Revans went on to develop his philosophy as a Research Scientist at Cambridge University, where he recognised the power of questioning and working as Action Learning sets, asking insightful questions of each-other. He then moved on to the National Coal Board as Director of Education, where he realised he couldn't take pit managers away from the pits - they had to learn at the pit head. His work at an international level has also been interesting - he supported Belgium in its economic recovery. He's someone who has had a very practical role in Action Learning - he would probably baulk at the idea of it becoming over-academic. I personally don't see management as an academic subject - people often fall into this trap.
TrainingZONE: Latest research from Roffey Park shows growing levels of stress among managers because of increased workloads and restructuring. How do you get managers to spend time on self-development?
Dr Richard Hale: The key thing to recognise is that Action Learning, if it's well-positioned, can help organisations in meeting their objectives. The more that one can frame Action Learning questions so that they're relevant the better. We tend to start by talking to managers about their own agenda - what is it that's top priority for them, and out of that should emerge key Action Learning questions. Action Learning activities shouldn't be seen as an add-on - there's lots of evidence IMCA have of many organisations adding value through Action Learning.
Dr Richard Hale can be contacted on 44 (0)117 968 2299.