Friday, 19 December 2014

Management development - filling empty vessels or valuing experience?

I return to an issue that I have written about before, namely the development of management competence.

The reason that this has come back into my consciousness again is the experience that I had last week working with a group of aspiring managers over a period of three days.  In the group of 12, one person was currently in a line management role, another had been a line manager at a mobile phone company before joining the current organisation in a front-line role; the remaining 10 people were also in front-line roles but who had had no explicit management experience.  I share this because it posed some questions for me: would a course designed primarily for people with management experience still be relevant? how might I need to adapt my style to facilitate their learning?

An important principle that guides my thinking is that people are not empty vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge.  Their life experiences, the jobs they are doing or have done, their prior knowledge and skills all come with them into any situation be this a formal learning intervention like a course or doing their everyday work. It is this experience that is the root of their learning and my job is to facilitate or animate this.  To animate derives from the French – animateur – and includes meanings of “to give life to, to quicken, to enliven, to inspire, to encourage, to activate or to put in motion”.  This is a reference from David Boud and Nod Miller's 1996 book 'Working with Experience: Animating Learning in which they describe five propositions to guide facilitators/animators:
  1. Experience is the foundation of, and stimulus for, learning
  2. Learners actively construct their own experience
  3. Learning is holistic
  4. Learning is socially and culturally constructed
  5. Learning is influenced by the socio-emotional context in which it occurs

Take seriously our own experience


The themes and topics that I talked about with the group covered a typical agenda for management development: self-awareness, situational leadership, objective setting, development planning, characteristics of high performing teams and stages of development, influencing, motivation, feedback and coaching.  In conversation with the group, it quickly became clear that, far from being empty vessels, they already knew a great deal about the topics.  In fact, as I reflect on this experience, perhaps the most important thing I did was to take seriously their prior knowledge before adding to it.  The result was a palpable sense of self-confidence within the group that they already knew a great deal, notwithstanding their relative managerial inexperience.  Both they and I were encouraged and motivated by this approach. 
My encouragement to all who I work with, whether in groups or individually, is to pay attention to what each of us is already doing and has always been doing, as opposed to what we should be doing.  Experience is the critical reflection point from which our insights can form the basis for action.   

Learning: Roman roads or woodpaths


As I wrote about in my post Learning: Roman roads or woodpaths, management developers are attracted to the possibility of identifying clear pathways and defined steps to follow.  In practice, much of our management learning is messy and nebulous and resistant to approaches, however tempting, that force us to follow a prescribed path.  



Any form of inquiry-based process that stimulates the workings of our cognitive systems and which give us control over what is learned.  

Coaching and action learning.  Both are effective if there are others that can work with you in these ways.

Or self-reflective methods that can be done on your own like:

Freefall Writing  - this is good for working on issues or topics where you have a nagging concern about something but are struggling to articulate.  
Evernote, which is good for grabbing web pages and adding notes about fragments of ideas that can be returned to later and reviewed.
Blogging is certainly my most important learning tool.  I value the discipline that comes with writing something that is visible to all.

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