The economic recession of the 1980’s with its climate of rapidly changing and unpredictable demands on managers demonstrated that the traditional approach to management education was inadequate. Consequently, a major shift in the focus of management education was necessary, with an emphasis on improvisation, innovation, flexibility and the willingness to take risks. This called for a new, entrepreneurial mentality, where education should follow closely the practice of successful management. Textbooks did not hold the solutions to new situations, a concerted group based explorative and investigative approach was required.

Through the Action Learning MBA, a learning situation is created where managers work together, with an emphasis on how to ask the right questions, with the lecturers drawing on their experience to facilitate this process. This philosophy requires more effort from student and lecturer, beyond the traditional imparting and absorbing of knowledge, but the outcomes far out way the input.

The changing demands of the corporate world cry out for the Action Learning didactical philosophy. This means not being content with just knowledge and expertise, “but doing things, trying ideas and developing initiatives…..” “this is what makes people competent managers” (Revans 1971). Knowledge remains an important factor, but Action Learning means forging new ideas and preventing old concepts from blocking the path to a solution.

In practical terms, programmed knowledge as appears in textbooks is not to be rejected but cannot be used as the formula to solve all problems. More emphasis is placed on asking the right questions in unpredictable situations, where acquired knowledge cannot yield results.

Action Learning is: Learning together. Small sets or groups of “comrades in adversity” and within the social structure of the group, learning takes place as members are busy with each other’s problems. Tutors no longer lecture but participate, facilitating the reorganisation of thoughts and the search for the right questions.

The problems solved by each set are relevant to each member’s organisation. It is all about taking responsibility for action within ones own organisation. The outcomes are beneficial for the organisation, needs are met which in turn meets the needs of the student.

Projects are more meaningful if they involve an element of risk. Fast learning is a product of making mistakes, and a certain tolerance is required on behalf of the student’s organisation. Project responsibility is shared between student and organisation, furthermore, the student should be empowered to carry out the projects independently, without fear of retribution.

Finally, the Action Learning MBA involves thinking about one’s actions. Reflection in action: In small groups one can learn to think about results, develop new ideas, take action and rethink. Learn to think and learn to learn.

The new economic downturn calls for a more concerted approach, company investment in management educational programmes following the Action Learning approach will strengthen an the ability of an organisation to respond positively during tough times. Decisions that would be considered too great a risk are based upon sound evidence, active discussion and an approach of solidarity. Few MBA programmes can offer such remuneration.

Author: Mr. D. Gerdzen, Business School Netherlands

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